VOL. 132 | NO. 110 | Friday, June 2, 2017
Memphis' First Storm Damage Estimate Tops $9 Million
By Bill Dries
One of the more striking sites Rodney Wakefield has seen since Saturday’s storm that raked the city was a “for sale” sign in a yard where a large tree had fallen after being uprooted from the ground near the sign.
“It’s like a maze you are trying to get through,” says Memphis Public Works Supervisor Rodney Wakefield, who had been working 36 hours straight Wednesday when Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland dropped by Collins Yard to thank him for his work. (Daily News/Bill Dries)
“I saw this man that had a ‘for sale’ sign in his yard and a tree came down on his house,” said Wakefield, a Memphis Public Works supervisor who has been helping move some trees as well as supervising employees in the storm recovery effort. “He’s trying to sell his house and you can’t even see it.”
Wakefield had been working 36 hours Wednesday afternoon, May 31, when Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland dropped by Collins Yard – the public works center where some of the city effort toward recovery is being coordinated.
“It’s well beyond what anyone would expect,” Strickland said of Wakefield’s effort in particular and that of other city employees in general.
As of Thursday morning, 30,550 homes and businesses were without power – down from the original Saturday count of 188,000 – and Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division crews were working with teams from 90 other utility companies to full restore power.
The city public works crews had cleared 312 reports of trees in streets as of Thursday morning, with 199 more to be removed.
Wakefield has been a public works employee since 1989, with experience in the clean-up efforts after the 1994 ice storm and the 2003 straight line winds nicknamed “Hurricane Elvis.”
He rates the current damage as worse than the other two.
“It’s really hectic out there. You have trees everywhere. You’ve got trees in backyards. You’ve got trees in the road. You’ve got trees on people’s houses. … The previous ones don’t touch this,” he said. “The ice storm and this one here – they are almost the same. … The ice storm – that only brought down limbs. This one … the trees are coming up from the roots. If you look at limbs versus trees, which one do you think is more?”
MLGW president Jerry Collins, meanwhile, puts the current effort behind the ice storm and Hurricane Elvis in terms of the severity of the damage.
And the MLGW price tag is at least $7 million, which goes toward the tally of money local governments have spent on the storm damage. The county as a whole has to total and verify at least $9.8 million in expenses to qualify for federal disaster assistance.
The city’s preliminary damage estimate Thursday came in at $9.9 million.
Whatever the city gets in terms of federal disaster funding won’t reimburse the city for all of the money it is using from city coffers upfront. That is the way disaster response works.
“As I understand it, the city still hasn’t been reimbursed for storms that happened years ago,” he said. “I’m most interested in how do we help people – individual property owners.”
Wakefield isn’t worried about dollar figures. He’s coordinating the removal of trees and realizes work like restoring electrical power can’t begin until the trees are out of the way. However, they can’t be moved if there are live electrical wires that came down with them.
That was the case in Overton Park, where a tree on Golf Drive by the park’s golf course clubhouse took down some power lines Saturday. The line came to life Tuesday evening and set the tree on fire. The Memphis Fire Department put it out, with MLGW coming out Wednesday to deal with the wire and safety cones blocking that section of the park road.
“We’re motivated to get the trees up,” Wakefield said. “If you make it hard, it’s going to be hard. You use your mind and your skills. … I’m out here to help citizens get back like they need to be. I know people are frustrated and want their power on. So we’ve got to clear the lines.”
Wakefield has some of those same frustrations but for a different reason.
As he and his crews are trying to get to the next tree or group of trees on its list, they may come across utility crews or traffic crews working on other problems that mean a detour in traffic for everyone.
“It’s like a maze you are trying to get through to get where you need to go,” he said.