The imminent threat of extensive flood damage brought congressional visitors to Memphis and Shelby County on Friday: U.S. senator Lamar Alexander and three members of the U.S. House of Representatives — Marsha Blackburn, Stephen Fincher, and Steve Cohen, of the 7th, 8th, and 9th congressional districts, respectively.
Along with Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell, the four federal office-holders — three Republicans and a Democrat — underwent a briefing presided over by local Emergency Management director Bob Nations and other preparedness/response officials, then toured the Memphis waterfront by bus to see firsthand the looming threat of rising floodwaters, as well as the considerable damage already inflicted on the rim of the Mississippi River.
After the briefing, held in the Emergency Operations Center at Shelby Emergency Management headquarters on Avery Avenue, the officeholders offered some politically inflected comments.
"I couldn't be more proud of our Shelby County community," said Luttrell, emphasizing what he saw as a high degree of local coordination — among government agencies, media, faith-based organizations, and citizens at large — in meeting the emergency. That same tack was taken also by Alexander ("I'm here to compliment Shelby County") and Blackburn ("I'm pleased that we're able to meet here as a team").
In his remarks, Democrat Cohen emphasized the federal role in ongoing disaster relief: "There are people who tell you that the federal government doesn't do anything. They want to slash and burn. The federal government is here to help. It will always be here to help." By implication, Cohen's statement took in the Republican colleagues who were with him. It also took in past luminaries, like "Mayor [Ed] Crump, former congressman Crump," who in the wake of the 1937 flood "got a lot of money."
The GOP's Fincher, a Crockett County farmer and gospel singer who won his seat in 2010 by employing anti-Washington rhetoric, sounded a different note. "Washington is a great place to visit, but home is home," he said. And his response to Cohen paid homage to the current Republican emphasis on reduction of federal spending.
"As someone said before, we don't want to be on the backside of this thing, Congressman Cohen, and not have the money to fund the things that are important for our communities and our districts and our state."
During the bus tour of potentially affected areas, Blackburn wondered how floodwaters on Presidents Island — where several operations had shut down by way of precaution — might impact future industrial recruitment. And she asked what the immediate threat to the Pyramid was — to which Luttrell, reflecting on this much-discussed subject, observed, "There's probably water already in the Pyramid."
Fincher was concerned about farmlands flooded when the Corps of Engineers exploded portions of the Birds Point Levee in Missouri to relieve flood levels downriver: "This is critical in the agricultural community. A lot of farmers had crops contracted."
It turned out that nobody really knew the degree to which those farmers might be compensated — or by whom. Steve Barry, chief of Emergency Management for the Corps of Engineers in Memphis, observed that the Corps had "flowing rights" over these lands, most of which had already been impacted, and said the Corps had "decided that water on water would not augment the damage."
At the conclusion of the bus tour, Luttrell observed, "The various governments have all surrendered a little bit of their autonomy. We've started coming together, clearing up our lines of communication." As for the various emergency-management agencies on hand and here for the duration, "We're on a first-name basis with all these folks now."
Whatever comes next, for better or for worse, that intimacy is likely to be increased for a while.
Corker on Pakistan and bin Laden
WASHINGTON — In an interview with the Flyer in Washington last week (excerpted here and available in its entirety at memphisflyer.com), U.S. senator Bob Corker of Tennessee commented on the revelation that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, killed last week by a U.S. assault force, had occupied a commodious compound in a suburb of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.
"I think we've known for a long time that Pakistan plays both sides. They've been able to get aid from America by being a bad actor. It's a leverage they use. I just left a Foreign Relations Committee meeting where I talked about this. Whether they're in cahoots or incompetent, this has been an embarrassment for their country, and it provides a relationship-changing opportunity."
On Pakistan as the true center of al-Qaeda activity: "The fact is, if you travel through Afghanistan, as I've done many times, and you talk to our military leaders, they're unbelievably frustrated, because they're fighting a war in a country where our enemies are not. And on the other hand, we're providing aid to a country where our enemies are. To me, this is where our focus needs to be.
"In the FATA — the Federal Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, Balochistan, and the former Northwest province — that's where all the al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership, their accounting network, they're all there. It'd be my guess that the second-in-command in al-Qaeda is still there. So to me this creates an opportunity for us to bear down on ridding that country of the enemies that we're fighting in Afghanistan but happen to reside in Pakistan.
"Our men and women in uniform [in Afghanistan], I hold in highest esteem in carrying out their mission, but much of what they're fighting there is just criminality. I mean, one of the areas I was in, there was a prison nearby, there was about 1,500 folks locked up there, and only 80 of them were extremists. The other 1,420 were there because of criminality. Again, the head of the monster, if you will, exists in Pakistan."
On the nature of Pakistani relations with bin Laden: "It'll be interesting to know what we find out as time goes on. I've written a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton requesting that they share with us what involvement they're aware of, and I think that will happen in the very near future. But I think we have an opportunity like we've not had to really force the issue in Pakistan. What they're really doing is allowing people to exist there directing the killing of American soldiers in Afghanistan."
On the risk element in the American raid that resulted in bin Laden's killing: "I absolutely believe there was risk involved. I don't want to say more than I should, but there was no question that the president took a risk, and I'm glad that he did. ... Ultimately, the president had to make a decision as to whether to send the Navy SEALS. There was risk involved. In other words, it was not a sure thing. It wasn't a sure thing that it was even where Osama was. It also wasn't a sure thing obviously that it would be successful. You've seen what has happened in the past with presidents who have visions that go awry, so I think you have to give the president a lot of credit."