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VOL. 126 | NO. 94 | Friday, May 13, 2011

Raging River, Watchful City

Memphis, Mid-South prepare for next step as floodwaters begin to recede

By Bill Dries

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As the Mississippi River crested at a historic level last week, most Memphians went to their jobs as usual.

The Memphis Grizzlies continued their NBA playoff run at FedExForum with a sellout crowd the same night that the river approached its crest less than a mile away.

As the river reached its highest point since 1937, it marked a stark contrast between the Memphis of today and the Memphis of 74 years ago.

The daily pace of the city was a mix of the everyday and the extraordinary. And there was a line between the two for most.

The sight of the river at just less than 48 feet continued to draw Memphians Downtown. But so did the Grizzlies and Beale Street in the first blast of summer weather all year.

True, those living in shelters topped 500 with signs more are seeking shelter for the long haul, but the flood’s reality here was much different than the perception, especially in the national media.

“What we have is octopus like,” said Bob Nations, the Shelby County director of preparedness who has become the face of the flood fight and the recovery to come. “The tentacles … are wrapping water around us, but we’re not underwater.”

He countered the notion broadcast nationwide that the city was, indeed, underwater.

The Mississippi River, now three miles wide at Memphis, gets all of the attention. But it has been the most predictable waterway of the six in Shelby County. It’s the five tributaries that concerned Nations and the other emergency responders – and caused much of the problem here.

“A lot of fascination with the mighty Mississippi,” Nations said. “It’s a river in rage right now. It’s a love-hate relationship we have with it. But we’re watching our tributaries because our citizens live mainly on those tributaries – those waterways.”

Close to 1,500 properties were identified as likely to flood based on specific GIS models local emergency responders and the University of Memphis developed earlier this month.

Most of the properties are from Shelby Forest and Northaven to Millington to North Memphis and Boxtown in South Memphis. Also, the community of Mud Island – bordered by the Mississippi River and Wolf River Harbor – which didn’t exist in 1937, was in the flood’s crosshairs as well.

Nations estimated 16 to 18 percent of Shelby County’s area is affected by the flooding in some way.

“It does not diminish the seriousness. But it does put it in perspective,” he said.

For homeowners and residents in those areas of the county, the backwaters of the tributaries waiting to be released into the Mississippi probably won’t begin moving until the river reaches the 44- or 45-foot mark, according to Memphis National Weather Service meteorologist Richard Okulski.

When the waters do recede some will lose their homes and others will have their homes remade from the studs up.

The story of the flood is also a detailed tracking of not only the floodwaters, but those in their path who were not forced to evacuate and were not cut off from further assistance if they chose to stay.

In organizing the response, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and other leaders were mindful of the fraying and crumbling of government efforts in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

“We’ve always been alert to say we don’t want to come anywhere near what happened at Katrina,” Wharton said. “This is why we’re going a step beyond and what I would call affirmative action.”

Elizabeth Edwards passes her son's flooded truck as she rescues items from her flooded home in the Woodstock-Cuba area. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

Jackie McKee examines water damage inside his home in the Woodstock-Cuba area after it was flooded by water from Big Creek. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

The team of more than 40 local, state and federal agencies has been working together since early April. An April 4 storm was the first of three in rapid succession that raked the county. Then came the first of two periods of heavy rain in late April that raised awareness of the rising river. The team was a well oiled if overworked disaster response machine by that time.

“You can still ride in those neighborhoods and see the impact and the result of a lot of that damage from that particular storm,” Nations said. “Following which we had another one and then another one. It’s been a series of very difficult weather contingencies to deal with.”

Nine Tennessee counties including Shelby County got approval the day before the river crested for federal disaster assistance. The money – 75 percent of which is federal funding, 25 percent of which is local – is for damage from the storms of April 4.

When the waters recede they will probably take a lot of the roads they cover with them.

On the day the river crested, parts of 41 streets, roads and intersections were underwater in Shelby County.

Restoring most of the public property that is washed away, eroded or becoming toxic in the mud, silt and ooze will be paid for with the same 75-25 split.

“It is going to be expensive,” said Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell who declined to cite a dollar figure, saying only it would be “a significant amount of money” and that the county’s funding reserve would help cover the cost.

The local governments will pay all of the cost up front and get the federal money later as a reimbursement. The federal government began the bureaucratic process of assessing that damage just days after the river’s crest.

Still to come is a list of recovery steps for the months ahead that will include decisions on whether to rebuild in areas along the tributaries perennially flooded even when the Mississippi River does not go beyond its banks.

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