The world was supposed to end on Saturday, May 21st, according to Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping. But that prediction didn't stop more than 50 people from donning work gloves and rubber boots at Greenbelt Park in Harbor Town for the first volunteer-led flood cleanup effort since floodwaters began receding.
By the day's end — thanks to gung-ho efforts by volunteers — much of the smaller items of trash, like plastic bottles and other debris, had been removed from the swollen river's banks in Harbor Town.
"This was the first effort to get everybody in the mode of thinking about cleaning up after the flood," says Eldra White, executive director of Memphis City Beautiful.
Trash and driftwood washed ashore by floodwaters are perhaps the least of numerous problems in the wake of the receding flood. Hundreds of flood victims will become homeless as area emergency shelters close their doors. Black mold will begin to grow in many homes and businesses that were flooded. Snakes and other wild critters will take up residence in areas where they won't be welcome. Residences that are not salvageable will add to the city's blight problem. And to top it all off, Memphis may be poised for one of the worst mosquito seasons in recent history.
In a way, maybe it's too bad the world didn't end. If it had, Memphis wouldn't be faced with a massive cleanup that will suck up city and county manpower and money and funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The Newly Homeless
Although the majority of the city was spared from flooding, a few hundred residents in South Memphis, North Memphis, and northern Shelby County watched as murky brown water filled their homes and businesses earlier this month.
Some of the hardest-hit areas were mobile home parks such as Country View and Memphis Mobile City in North Memphis. The shelter at Hope Presbyterian Church reached capacity by May 1st, as residents were told to evacuate their homes.
"These people lost everything," says Scott Milholland, chief operating officer of Hope Presbyterian and Shelby Cares, a network of local churches taking the lead with disaster relief. Milholland began organizing Shelby Cares about 18 months ago.
"[Helping] is in our DNA. We love to do it," Milholland says.
The historic flood was Shelby Cares' first full-fledged disaster relief effort, and their quick mobilization made them indispensable to recovery, in some ways displacing the National Red Cross. Five local churches provided shelters for flood victims, and at the height of the disaster, there were 12 more church shelters ready to open, if needed.
At the Hope shelter, cots sit in neat rows, punctuated by the occasional pop-up crib. Set in the middle of the room is a giant projection screen donated by the Memphis Grizzlies during their playoff run. The shelter provides mobile showers, medical care, security guards, and home-school teachers.
All of the inhabitants of the Hope shelter are Latino, and most of them are young families. Anywhere from 50 to 100 Spanish translators rotate in and out of the shelter to help.
A makeshift morning routine runs smoothly here: Men leave for work by 7:30 a.m.; mothers take their young children to eat breakfast from the impressive buffet spread; a troop of young boys ride around the gym on the church nursery's tricycles. After three long weeks, some checks from FEMA are being mailed to individuals who qualified, and the overall tone at the shelter is elevated. Milholland expects the shelter to close over the next week or two, after all the FEMA checks arrive.
The hopeful mood is not without misgivings, as many residents lost everything and are still unsure where they will live. Karen Vasquez, a single mother of two boys, came to Hope on April 29th when the Kingsway Green mobile home park on North Watkins flooded. She, like many others, showed up with only a few items of clothing salvaged from her home.
Vasquez says she won't be moving back to Kingsway Green when her FEMA check arrives. "I've been looking at a place near Park and White Station," she says.
Vasquez' determination to leave Kingsway Green brings up a host of questions about what will happen to properties abandoned after the flood.
"The homes will go through normal city and county channels should they need to be condemned," says Heather Reynolds, a spokesperson for the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department.
In other words, the city could be faced with more blight as the recovery process moves forward. For now, code enforcement officers are marking some homes as "uninhabitable," but no decisions have been made as to whether these homes will be condemned or demolished.
As many as 2,106 citizens have registered with FEMA so far, and as federal funds are distributed, victims of the flood will have to decide whether or not to return to the wreckage left behind. — Hannah Sayle
Those who decide to return to flooded homes may find bluish-green or dark gray mold forming along drywall, tiles, curtains, and carpet. Mold, one of the biggest health hazards following a flood, forms and spreads on various kinds of damp or decaying organic matter.
Tyler Zerwekh, administrator for environmental health services at the Shelby County Health Department, says mold forms when a house has dampened surfaces but no ventilation.
"With any flood or high-water event, houses that take on water usually lose power, which means they lose ventilation," Zerwekh says. "With windows shut, once the water recedes you still have that moisture, similar to leaving your clothes in the washing machine overnight."
After mold has found its way into a house or building, it disperses spores that can be dangerous to human health.
"Mold infection can worsen pre-existing conditions such as asthma, severe allergies, and auto-immune disorders," Zerwekh says. "Typical mold exposure can trigger symptoms similar to an allergic reaction: coughing in the chest and discomfort or issues within the nose, which is where mold spores are normally inhaled."
Zerwekh says floodwaters could also contain potential contaminants such as E. coli, salmonella, and hepatitis A.
City and county code enforcement officers have begun to inspect flooded homes for mold and other property damage. The inspectors determine if houses are safe and structurally sound.
"There are three different colored stickers that determine whether a house is permissible to enter or not," says Johnie McKay, manager of code enforcement and deputy director of the Division of Community Enhancement. "The red sticker is the most serious and means that a house is not enterable. The yellow sticker means that residents must proceed with caution. And the blue sticker means that water approached the house, but it didn't get to its interior."
ServiceMaster Clean is one of several privately owned cleaning crews providing restoration services to businesses and homeowners.
Peter Duncanson, director of training and technical support for ServiceMaster Clean's disaster restoration service, says once water has receded and homes are checked for damage, they will remove all porous items such as drywall, carpet, carpet padding, clothing, and ceiling tiles. They also use high-powered vacuums to remove any water remaining in homes and dehumidifiers to control dampness.
Duncanson says it normally takes three to five days to clean and dry a house that's been flooded, but it could take longer for some Memphis homes due to the magnitude of damage and the water remaining relatively high.
"It depends on the size of the home, the nature of the items lost, and the extent of property damage," Duncanson says.
ServiceMaster Clean's crews have been testing their skills at the company's 1,100-square-foot "flood house" on North Shelby Oaks. Last week, the company flooded the test house and put a crew to work cleaning it as practice for the real thing.
To prevent mold from forming, the Shelby County Health Department is encouraging residents to clean wet items and surfaces with soap and water, open doors and windows, use fans to dry out the space, and remove all spongy items that have been wet for more than 48 hours.
It also encourages residents to wear goggles, gloves, and a dust mask to prevent mold spore inhalation.
Zerwekh says every house that's been flooded isn't in jeopardy of developing mold.
"It depends on how long they were flooded and how fast they were able to get some ventilation and the water dried out," Zerwekh says. "Those that were hit very hard were flooded for an extended period of time. They're going to have mold issues." — Louis Goggans
Of Trees and Trash
These days, Harbor Town's Greenbelt Park looks more like a muddy logging site than a lush, riverside park.
Hundreds of pieces of driftwood, some the size of trees, lined the park's edge last Saturday as volunteers gathered small trash during the Memphis City Beautiful-sponsored cleanup effort.
Since much of the driftwood is too large for trash bags, the city will have to haul off the logs washed onto the river's shore.
"The large stuff will be dealt with by heavy equipment once we can get to the area," says McKay. "There's still a softness on the ground, so we have to be careful about putting heavy equipment out there too soon."
Elizabeth Glasgow, manager for the Harbor Town Community Association, says she'd love for artists to put some of the driftwood to use, and the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) has offered the UrbanArts Commission their share of any wood they might want.
"I've had a few homeowners ask if we should collect a few pieces and make art. I just hate to trash these beautiful pieces of old wood," Glasgow says. "We could maybe get together and make some kind of monument to the flood of 2011."
Logs have also washed onto the shore at Tom Lee Park, which was partly underwater during the flood's 48-foot crest. The RDC will reopen the park in time for Memphis in May's Sunset Symphony on Saturday, May 28th.
"Tom Lee Park will look better for Sunset Symphony than it ever has because the [Memphis in May] barbecue fest wasn't there to tear up the ground," says RDC president Benny Lendermon.
Some people have expressed concern about Tom Lee Park's soil quality, since floodwaters were contaminated with fecal matter. Lendermon says the RDC will not test the soil before reopening the park.
"In our opinion, the soil situation there is no different from Greenbelt Park, which floods once or twice a year," Lendermon says. "We don't see any bacteria in the water down there."
The RDC also is helping with Greenbelt Park cleanup efforts, and while the trash is worse than normal, Lendermon says Harbor Town's park always ends up looking better after a flood.
"The grass comes back greener than ever. We fertilize all the other parks, but we don't fertilize Greenbelt Park because it gets natural nutrients from the river," Lendermon says.
The RDC will have its work cut out for them at Mud Island River Park, parts of which were completely submerged when the river crested. The dressing rooms at Mud Island Amphitheater filled up "like aquariums," according to Lendermon.
"It's all muddy in there now, and the ceilings fell down," Lendermon says. "But the walls are made from cinder blocks, so, luckily, it's not sheetrock. We need to replace a lot of the light fixtures and the HVAC systems and ductwork, but it shouldn't take more than a month."
The Gulfport Grill, the park's snack bar, flooded, but Lendermon says the damage isn't bad. The Gulf of Mexico pool filled with river water, but it was drained and refilled with treated pool water last weekend. Much of the park should reopen this weekend.
The city's Division of Community Enhancement will clean up other areas of town. McKay says they've already begun sweeping dirty streets where river water has receded.
So far, the biggest challenge to clean up is the caked-on dirt at Beale Street and Riverside Drive, where flooding was several feet deep.
"There seems to be a one- to two-inch thick layer of debris there, which will have to be loosened up somehow. After that's done, the sweepers will be sent to pick it up," McKay says. "Riverside is the most severe so far, but I'm certain we'll find other [streets] in that condition as we continue to visit streets where the water has fallen."
McKay says the city's engineering department also is evaluating previously flooded streets for "soft spots" that could lead to sinkholes. "Before streets can reopen," he says, "there has to be an inspection made as to their sustainability and safety." — Bianca Phillips
The defining moment of the national media's coverage of flooding in Memphis had to be Diane Sawyer's wader-clad romp through the Big Muddy. Her cameraman captured a shot of a water snake, which the celebrity journalist described as "deadly poisonous" and having "no fear whatsoever of humans."
Reporters also told viewers that floodwaters were unleashing a plague of unwelcome critters, like poisonous spiders and rodents. Floods do displace animal populations and area herpetologists have reported seeing snakes they normally don't see.
But, as river science writer Steve Gough noted on his blog, Riparian Rap, "Snakes are the last thing people need to worry about in a flood like this, but invariably, the idiotic 'snake-infested floodwaters' meme emerges."
There is, however, at least one flood-enhanced pest worth paying attention to: the mosquito.
It's easy to scare people with mosquito factoids. Worldwide, diseases contracted from the bloodsucking insects kill millions of people every year. They carry a variety of nasty diseases, including yellow fever, dengue fever, malaria, and the West Nile virus.
As the floodwaters in Memphis continue to recede, leaving behind stagnant pools of water, the conditions become extremely favorable for breeding mosquitoes. Even if things dry quickly, the city is probably in for an extra-itchy summer at the very least.
"You have to have three things for a disease to spread," says Jack Grubaugh, chair of biological sciences at University of Tennessee-Martin. "First, you've got to have the disease. Then you need the vector [in this case, a mosquito] and the host. In the case of something like malaria [in Memphis], we've got the mosquito and obviously the host, but the disease isn't here.
"In Memphis, people associate mosquitoes with yellow fever," Grubaugh says. "And I'm sure most of us have visited No Man's Land at Elmwood Cemetery [where victims of the yellow fever epidemic of 1878 are buried]. But we don't have Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that carries yellow fever. Not in Memphis. So an outbreak of yellow fever is highly unlikely."
Grubaugh thinks it's possible that mosquito populations could remain high for much of the summer. Mosquitoes prefer to lay eggs in damp soil or on rafts in still pools with lots of organic matter.
Extensive flooding creates the perfect condition for mosquitoes to breed in a virtually predator-free environment. If the summer is hot and dry, populations may normalize as the females find fewer places to lay eggs away from fish and other natural predators.
"Fish can really knock back a [mosquito] population," Grubaugh says. Although bats and purple martins also eat mosquitoes, they aren't major predators.
Grubaugh takes a practical attitude toward the possible spread of the West Nile virus.
"We should always be alert," he says, acknowledging that the spread of disease is a possibility every summer, whether mosquito populations are high or not.
"Mosquitoes live around humans. The best thing you can do is to not give them habitat," Grubaugh continues. "Patrol your yard. Look out for children's toys and flowerpots that gather water and are full of organic matter. Don't leave buckets in your yard. And make sure your gutters are clear, because clogged gutters are a perfect place for mosquitoes to lay their eggs."
Since West Nile mosquitoes tend to be night fliers, Grubaugh suggests this practical advice: "You can also stay inside when the mosquitoes are most active."
— Chris Davis