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VOL. 126 | NO. 89 | Friday, May 6, 2011



Dodging the Deluge

Memphis prepares for rising Mississippi River

By Bill Dries

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The last time the Memphis river gauge was this high, Memphis was a much different place. In 1937 when the Mississippi River at Memphis topped 48.7 feet, Mud Island was really an island with no levee connecting it to the city and the Wolf River flowing between it and the city proper. Parts of the city were still rural as was the county outside Memphis. Today’s suburban development was a long way off, and Millington was still a few years away from getting the Naval Air Station.

So when the river began to rise last month north of Memphis after a lot of snow and record rainfall farther north along North America’s largest river and its tributaries, few knew what to expect when the record rains came to Memphis at the end of April.

The rains focused attention on a river that has also remade itself numerous times in the last 74 years, sometimes on its own and sometimes with help from those living in the cities by its massive muddy current.

“We’re going to be surprised,” Bob Nations, the Shelby County Emergency Preparedness director said last week, the same day he and other emergency responders gave their clearest forecast yet of what the Wednesday crest of 48 feet would mean for Memphis.

“But in this business you get snake bit sometimes.”

In some ways, the flood to come isn’t much different than 1937. It’s just new to a lot of Memphians for whom the river will likely never be higher in their lifetime than it will be for the rest of this month.

In North Memphis, Classic American Hardwoods Inc. is a 10-year-old company that is part of the city’s long heritage as a worldwide hardwood market and distributor.

For most of the 20th century, the hardwood business in Memphis was the other industrial giant along with cotton. The city billed itself as the world’s largest hardwood market and the hardwood flooring capital.

Classic American Hardwoods president and founder Bill Courtney has built a business with global ties that few companies in 1937 could have ever envisioned. He has an office in Shanghai and another in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

But he does share one problem the city’s lumber industry must have endured during the 1937 flood.

“Our inbound shipments come from small mom-and-pop mills all over the country,” he said. “They can’t get their logging crews down into the bottomlands where a lot of the lumber comes from. We’re getting no inbound receipts.”

The company gets 100,000 to 150,000 board feet of green lumber a day, down seasonally for about three to four weeks of flooding.

Cyril Forck, 90, catches a small perch from his backyard on Mud Island, which is usually 50 feet away from the edge of the Mississippi River. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

“But it’s nothing like this,” Courtney said. “My green yard is empty. Saw mills are shutting down all over the place because they don’t have any logs to cut. … The reason we can’t get any logs is they are 10 feet under water.”

If the green lumber gets wet, it’s not a big deal. He moved part of his rolling stock out of a corner of the yard recently. But mud and slime left when the floodwaters leave could cause some damage. After the lumber is graded and kiln dried and stored in a dry shed, any water will ruin it.

That’s not what makes him anxious as he watches the river rise.

Classic American’s diversification has helped it weather the recession, but it’s been a rough three years. Still, demand began to pick up recently and Courtney expects it will remain up.

“Fortunately, we have a larger than average inventory building over the last year to sell out of which will sustain us for another month or month and a half,” Courtney said. “But if it doesn’t ease up pretty soon on us, it will cause us real problems.”

Memphis National Weather Service meteorologist Richard Okulski expects the river at Memphis could remain at the 48-foot crest or near it for as long as a week – to May 18.

“This is a long period crest and then a slow recession,” Okulski said.

The water from the Mississippi River rises close to the edge of the Maria Montessori School on Mud Island. The rising river is expected to crest at 48 feet, nearly equaling the level it attained during the historic 1937 flood. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

Nations is emphasizing the river will get to the crest gradually. Gradual is relative when it comes to the river, which was rising at about a foot a day. The gradual rise got a bit more gradual when the U.S. Army Corps on Engineers blew up a levee at the Bird’s Point Waterway in Missouri. The result was a longer journey for the water to the north to Memphis and the river below the city.

“Here’s the sticky part,” Nations began as he talked about possible flooding at Mud Island on the eastern side facing the harbor. “Remember we’re dealing not with a flash flood type event. It’s progressive. You have time to make plans.”

Back in North Memphis, Courtney was pondering other journeys – ones by rail that his lumber takes to seaports for the journey overseas on the global supply chain.

BNSF Railway Co., which has its local intermodal facility at Shelby Drive and Lamar Avenue, has told Courtney and other customers to “expect delays.”

“My concern is they can’t get the trains out,” Courtney said. “They’re still taking containers and freight in to be loaded on trains. But they’re just saying it won’t go on a train until they can get the trains out. At some point, their yard is going to fill up with containers and then they are going to quit taking shipments in.”

At press time, the railroad had several Missouri routes south of St. Louis out due to flooding at Rush Tower and floodgates closed at Ste. Genevieve, McBride and Cape Girardeau, Mo.

“Right now, we’re just rerouting,” said BNSF spokesman Andy Williams. “We have stuff coming in and out of Memphis. We’ve been rerouting it around those closed tracks. Business is running. It’s just we have to take different routes.”

General DeWitt Spain Airport north of Downtown Memphis is flooded after a recently built berm and section of Second Street washed out overnight. Most planes had previously been evacuated from the airport. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

Meanwhile, the continued flow of auto traffic in Shelby County will depend on the five tributaries here: the Wolf and Loosahatchie rivers, and Nonconnah, Cypress and Big creeks.

“The bridges will be passable and interstates will be passable except those that have a history and are typically flood prone in the low-lying area,” Nations said.

Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham chatted by phone at the Emergency Operations Center near the Mid-South Fairgrounds with Tipton County Sheriff Pancho Chumley, one of several sheriffs he’s talked with at least once a day during the crisis. As they talked, a television screen showed a barricaded bridge in Tipton County damaged by the high water.

The Wolf and Loosahatchie rivers get most of the attention because of the development around them.

But Big Creek is a familiar nemesis for the Millington area. Two weeks before the April 21 heavy rains that began the record river rise, Millington city engineer Derak Baskin noted Big Creek at the groundbreaking for the extension of Veterans Parkway.

Baskin said the city has rail, air and highway connections necessary for an expansion of its role as part of the Memphis area’s logistics hub. And he included the rising water in Big Creek.

“Big Creek is not a navigable waterway except during 1,000-year storm events like we had on May 1, 2010,” Baskin joked. “That day Big Creek covered 40 percent of our city and was indeed navigable that day,” he said on a serious note.

When the evacuations began in Shelby County, they began first in Millington and the trailer parks and mobile home parks in North Shelby County and Frayser. The evacuations were under way a year to the day of the May 2010 flooding in Millington.

Tom Lee Park was named Astor Park until 1954 and the park wasn’t expanded to its present size until the late 1980s and early 1990s, taking in the low point known as John B. Edgar Point on a dipping and climbing Riverside Drive since straightened and leveled.

1973 was the last time the river made it onto Riverside Drive and that was at 40.50 feet. The river was higher than that as the Beale Street Music Festival soldiered through its three-day run and the river was a compelling enough presence that Flaming Lips lead singer Wayne Coyne praised it. But it wasn’t in the park. At the 48-foot crest it will be in the park and probably on Riverside Drive.

When the Memphis river forecast was bumped from 45 feet to 48 feet, Memphis In May International Festival organizers moved the upcoming barbecue contest to Tiger Lane at the fairgrounds.

The contest, with more than 250 entrants from across the country and several foreign countries will open May 12 to the public on the same ground where refugees from the 1937 flood were camped the last time the Mississippi River was this high.

RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 0 133 1,342
MORTGAGES 0 131 1,047
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 0 19 170
BUILDING PERMITS 0 305 3,056
BANKRUPTCIES 20 118 736
BUSINESS LICENSES 27 53 329
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 0 0 0
MARRIAGE LICENSES 0 0 0