Down Along the Flood 

Historic levels of high water from the Mighty Mississippi put Memphis in the national spotlight.

Views of Mud Island

Ward Archer

Views of Mud Island

The Great Memphis Flood of 2011 may still have many surprises in store, but so far it has been the most family-friendly and possibly the most photographed flood of all time.

Who needs Memphis in May and the barbecue contest, which was moved from Tom Lee Park to Tiger Lane? On Mother's Day, the skies were clear, the river covered parts of Mud Island and Riverside Drive, and hundreds of families marked the occasion by coming downtown to take once-in-a-lifetime photos.

Television reporters for local and national news organizations donned waders and sloshed into floodwaters up to their chests to do their stand-ups. There were so many, in fact, that Bob Nations, the good-natured director of local emergency preparedness operations, pleaded with them to "stay out of the water." It was useless. At that very moment, a television monitor in the briefing room showed a reporter for The Weather Channel taking the plunge on the backside of Harbor Town, surely the best-documented 12 flooded homes in Memphis.

Kayaks glided over Mud Island River Park and its river model, which terminates in a flooded "Gulf of Mexico." Really, really flooded. A windsurfer drew a crowd as he zipped between the park and the banks of the Tennessee Welcome Center and Jefferson Davis Park.

At Tom Lee Park, it was possible to leap across the Mississippi River, or at least the spillover, and to reach out for the extended hand of the statue of Tom Lee himself, and to see the floodwater creeping up Beale Street from Riverside Drive.

So many sightseers drove to the Auction Avenue bridge to Mud Island that police had to limit access. As the water level reached 47 feet and lapped at Harbor Town, developer Henry Turley jokingly pleaded with boat operators: "Don't make any wake."

Politicians also got in the act, taking a bus tour of the flooded regions of Memphis last week (see Politics, page 14).

If Hurricane Elvis, the 100-mile-an-hour windstorm that leveled hundreds of trees and left 70 percent of Shelby County without power in 2003, was a non-event nationally, the slow-rising 2011 Memphis Flood has been a media smash, even though it has, so far, been less destructive.

Coming on the heels of the deadly and devastating tornadoes in Alabama and neighboring states in April, the flood seems tame indeed. It has required Nations and other officials to walk a thin line between understatement and overstatement.

"There is a fascination with the Mississippi River, but we have to look at our tributaries because that is where our highest impact would be," he said Monday.

Taking note of the wade-in-the-water national news reports, he noted that local levees, interstate highways, utilities, entertainment venues, and governments are functioning normally.

"I want to say that Graceland is safe, and we would charge hell with water pistols to keep it that way," he said.

The long-term outlook is not as bright. Once the crest of about 48 feet is reached on May 10th, the river will stay above the 34-foot flood stage until June, Nations and meteorologists predict. The flood will no longer seem so benign, even if there is no unexpected catastrophic event such as a break in the levee system or another deluge of rain.

"It's going to be a nasty one. It's going to be an expensive one," Nations said.

The flood is probably not going to break the record set in 1937 of 48.7 feet on the Memphis gauge. There has been some confusion about that figure, however, because there is a Beale Street river gauge as well, and it is — although unofficial — 1.3 feet higher than the Memphis gauge. The Memphis gauge measurement is the accepted historical standard.

Whether official records are broken or not, the flood reached the "holy shit" stage for Memphians some time last week, when it lapped over Riverside Drive and Mud Island in plain view of several excellent vantage points.

On a Mother's Day trip between the Harahan and Hernando DeSoto bridges, James Gilmer, a captain on the Memphis Riverboats line, entertained passengers with stories about the river that's been called "too thick to drink and too thin to plow." The current was booming along at 12 miles an hour, compared to a normal speed of about five miles an hour. The iron framework of the Harahan Bridge where it slopes downward into Arkansas was shockingly close to the water level, and the tops of trees were the only things indicating that this was normally farmland.

"I've been on this water 27 years and never seen it this high," Gilmer said. "The news media have got people thinking that nobody can be out there on it, but it doesn't affect us none. We love high water. That means I never have to walk down those cobblestones."

As of Monday morning, there were 383 people living in shelters in Shelby County, and officials were preparing to open a fourth shelter at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church. More than 1,000 households have been notified that they might have to evacuate.

The flooding has also taken a toll on wildlife. A sheriff's deputy said Monday that there were hundreds of dead deer on Presidents Island, but the number was put at 12 Tuesday by wildlife officials.

Charles and Christene Landreeves were visiting Memphis from England and came downtown Saturday to take in the view. Their Amtrak train from Chicago had been canceled, and they had to come to Memphis by bus via Nashville. As they pulled into Memphis, they were touched by the hundreds of volunteers filling sandbags.

"It's dreadful that people have lost their homes," she said. Her husband added, though, that the volunteers "show a lot of spirit and is nice to see."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is keeping a close watch on the levees. Scores of officers are walking the levees and making visual inspections. Sounding like Civil War commanders, the Corps of Engineers has vowed to fight this flood from Cairo to Vicksburg.

So far they seem to be winning, and most of Memphis is high and dry. But we are, literally, in uncharted waters, and the ending has not been written yet. — John Branston

Safe Havens

More than 900 homes and just over 430 apartment units in the county are expected to experience some flooding this week as the Mississippi River crests at about 48 feet, forcing residents to seek shelter.

Those who can't stay with family or friends are turning to five emergency shelters set up in churches and community centers across the county. At press time, nearly 400 people were being housed at the shelters.

One of those safe havens has been set up inside the gymnasium of Hope Presbyterian Church on Walnut Grove.

Jack Kelley, communications director for Hope, said they're doing all they can to make evacuees feel welcome.

"We're thankful they're safe, and we're glad that we're able to serve and care for them in probably one of the hardest times in their lives," Kelley said. "Whatever we can do to help make it easier for them, we're very grateful and happy to do so."

Kelley said the shelter opened on April 29th, a couple days after the flooding began, and it reached its capacity of just over 100 people the following Sunday. Kelley said 90 percent of the occupants are Hispanic families from North Memphis.

Hope has provided occupants with cots, mobile showers, washers and dryers, and three meals a day. Kids are provided with playpens and cribs.

The shelter set up at Cummings Street Baptist Church on East Raines has also met its capacity at just over 100 evacuees.

Virgial Bailey, a volunteer at Cummings, said the majority of the shelter's occupants are from the northern parts of the county. The evacuees have been housed in the church's gymnasium and annex building since May 1st.

"If you're used to providing for your family and now you can't even provide a roof over their head because of something that's out of your control, that's a hurtful feeling," Bailey said.

Similar to Hope, occupants at Cummings sleep on cots and air mattresses. They're provided with toiletries, towels, and washcloths, among other items.

White Station Church of Christ on Colonial was the first Mid-South Red Cross emergency shelter. As of May 9th, the shelter had five occupants, but they're prepared to house up to 125 people.

Rodney Plunket, the church's senior minister, said the church is providing air mattresses, cots, meals, showers, and devotional time for evacuees. Plunket said the occupants would stay in the Bible study classrooms and the church's gymnasium.

A shelter at the Millington Civic Center housed 59 people at press time, and another inside Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Midtown remained empty on Monday.

Humans aren't the only ones affected by flooding. Pets aren't allowed at church shelters, so representatives from the Memphis chapter of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) are providing care to pets of flood evacuees at an emergency shelter on Shelby Oaks Drive.

Sherry Lynn Rout, ASPCA legislative liaison, said the shelter has more than 170 animals, including dogs, cats, parakeets, guinea pigs, and ducks. Rout said they will accept any type of pet. She said they expect to receive about 500 animals, but can house more than 1,000. So far, Rout said most of the animals have come from Millington.

Animals at the shelter are provided with food, water, toys, an outside play area, and veterinary care. The shelter will rescue animals trapped in flood waters, but it is not taking strays from areas of the city that aren't impacted by flooding.

"I would encourage everyone to set up a plan for your family and set up a plan for your pets if you're impacted by the flood waters," Rout said. "Preparedness is the best protection." — Louis Goggans

Flood of Business

Bayless Greenhouse on Walsh Road in Millington may be surrounded by water, but owner Teresa Nance refuses to close for business.

"We're shipping out by boat," Nance said. "The plants are beautiful. The greenhouse is fine, but we're just having to get there by boat."

Last weekend — Mother's Day weekend — would have been one of her biggest sales days of the year, but Nance said business was cut significantly since customers can't actually reach the shop. The flooding hasn't made it inside her business, but water in the street has made it inaccessible without a boat.

"There's no one to help us out here. There's no police, no sandbags. You're just on your own," Nance said. "I do have wonderful neighbors who loaned me boats, though."

Fierce determination has kept Nance's business afloat since floodwaters have overtaken parts of Millington, northern Shelby County, and downtown Memphis. An estimated 226 businesses will be impacted as the river crests this week, according to the Shelby County Office of Preparedness.

The Mirimichi Golf Course in Millington closed over a week ago, as floodwaters overtook the 7,400-yard course. Staff and volunteers quickly worked to install an Aqua Dam, a water-filled inner tube designed to control floodwater, around the 10,000-square-foot Mirimichi Performance and Learning Center to protect the retail shop and café from damage.

Furniture, art, and IT systems were moved to a location safe from flooding. As for the golf course, Mirimichi's director of golf Greg King said it shouldn't receive too much damage from the flooding.

"We feel confident that, as the water recedes, the grass choices that we have are most tolerant to these conditions," King said.

"We hope to reopen within six weeks or less after the crest," said marketing director Deb Patterson.

One day after advertising itself as a place to see "the best and safest views of the flood of the century," Mud Island River Park closed when its service road and the south end of the park were submerged.

"It looks like we have about one foot of water inside the Gulfport Grill," said Riverfront Development Corporation spokesperson Dorchelle Spence.

Water also has made its way inside the Mud Island Amphitheater's dressing rooms and orchestra pit. Spence said the staff is carefully watching the bottom floor of the museum to ensure it doesn't flood as the wake from barge traffic pushes water further into the park.

The Dewitt Spain Airport on North Second Street could be closed for a month if waters take as long to recede as expected. Last week, a levee failure resulted in the flooding of the small airport. The flight school that operates there has temporarily moved operations to Olive Branch.

"Basically, all the aircraft were moved out. There were a few that were not moved because they were not operational," said John Greaud, vice president of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority. "One of those is up in the top of somebody's hangar, and it's in pretty good shape there."

A short drive away in Tunica, all nine of the floating casinos are shut down indefinitely due to flooding. Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau president Webster Franklin said that could mean an $87 million loss of revenue for Tunica County if the casinos remain shuttered for all of May.

Webster said he doesn't think the flooding has made its way inside the buildings, which were built to withstand a flood stage of 48 feet, but there's no way to tell the extent of the damage until waters recede.

"We have between 20,000 and 25,000 visitors a day who are not coming right now," Franklin said. "The impact is tremendous." — Bianca Phillips

Water Walls

Even in the worst floods of the past, the high bluffs here kept most of downtown safe. And to the south of the city, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built earthen levees to keep rising waters at bay.

Backing up those levees is a massive concrete flood wall system, part of a $12 million project completed in the late 1940s that the newspapers called "the greatest engineering project ever undertaken in this city, and probably the one most vital to our city's commercial life."

In the devastating floods of 1927 and 1937 — the worst on record so far — muddy waters from the Wolf River and Nonconnah Creek swamped much of North and South Memphis. To prevent a reoccurrence, the city government and the Corps of Engineers devised a vast flood-control project comprising overflow reservoirs, huge pumping stations, and miles of concrete walls designed to protect us against a crest of 57.5 feet.

The northern section of the flood wall snakes in and out of neighborhoods along Chelsea. The southern portion, running along Nonconnah Creek, begins at Martin Luther King/Riverside Park and stretches eastward to Prospect Street, near Pine Hills Golf Course.

The flood walls are 12 inches thick and stand from three to eight feet high, depending on their location. A 1947 newspaper article noted, "This not only provided a three-foot freeboard above what the Corps of Engineers figure to be the highest possible flood, but also provides for securing a 'mud box' to the top in case of emergencies."

Gaps in the wall let major streets cross them and railroads pass through. At those gaps, slots on each side of massive concrete pillars allow wooden gates to be dropped into place.

On Monday, as the Wolf River began to engulf properties and businesses in North Memphis, the gates — bundles of heavy wooden beams clamped together with steel straps — had been dropped into place along Chelsea, and low-lying sections of the street had been closed off entirely, dammed with piles of sandbags.

While Chelsea looked like a ghost town, nearby North Watkins and other streets in the area were lined with gawkers, who caused traffic jams (and a few near-accidents) as they stopped in traffic to snap pictures of the flooded Wolf. — Michael Finger

Barbecue Fest

"Smoke on the Water" is now "Come Hell or High Water" as Memphis in May officials have been forced to move the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest from its home in Tom Lee Park to Tiger Lane at the Memphis Fairgrounds.

"While we regret having to move away from the ambience of the Mississippi River location, the safety of the event, our guests from around the world, and the competition that crowns the World Champion are our priorities right now," said James L. Holt, president and CEO of Memphis in May, in a press release sent on May 2nd.

There was some initial discussion of changing the date of the event, but officials decided to change venues instead to accommodate the large number of participants who planned around the May 12th-14th schedule. Saving the date was particularly important for the Danish National Barbecue Team, which booked their international flight as soon as their application to compete was accepted.

"This is a big revenue getter for everybody, especially the city and Memphis in May," said Jim Boland of the Danish team. "If they [changed the date], too many teams would have to cancel, and they didn't even want to go there."

The relocation isn't without its challenges. Transportation is a big concern for competitors who booked downtown hotels for the event.

From the Memphis in May website: "We hear your requests and will definitely make our best efforts to accommodate everyone. We are working on shuttle transportation for those of you staying downtown and will announce details later this week."

Boland said Tiger Lane offers plenty of space for the festival, with some tents popping up even bigger than they would have at Tom Lee Park.

"As far as I can tell, I think everything is going to work out just fine," Boland said.

"The site was built specifically as a tailgating arena. So it's just a matter of making a little space for a few more tailgaters." — Hannah Sayle

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