Congressional Officials Check Out the Flood Threat in Memphis


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from left: Nations, Cohen, Luttrell, Alexander, Blackburn, and Fincher
  • JB
  • from left: Nations, Cohen, Luttrell, Alexander, Blackburn, and Fincher

Rather famously, the need to cope with natural disasters in a shared geographical area is an incentive to the pooling of responses and the overcoming of political differences. For the most part, such has proved to be the case with the great 2011 weather pandemic, which has loosed torrential rains, tornados, and floods upon much of the American South — notably including Shelby County and West Tennessee.

The visit to Memphis on Friday of 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 — was a case in point.

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 to see first-hand the looming threat of rising floodwaters, as well as the considerable damage already inflicted on the rim of the Mississippi River. Also on hand was state Representative Antonio Parkinson of Memphis.

The briefing was conducted in the Emergency Operations Center at Shelby Emergency Management Headquarters on Avery Avenue. Taking part were Nations; Rich Okulski of the National Weather Service; Brian Waldron the Ground Water Institute; Colonel Vernie Reichling, district commander of the Army Corps of Engineers; Major D. Craig Hamilton, deputy commander of the Memphis Corps District; and Tom Minyard, chief of engineering and construction for the Corps. The subsequent bus tour of the affected riverfront was overseen by Nations and Steve Barry, Emergency Operations Manager of the Corps.

The various emergency management officials took turns at the briefing, offering a rundown on conditions up to the moment and on further complications to come. Okulski began by providing water-level readings on the Mississippi River at Memphis: 46.1 feet as he spoke, “the second highest level since we began doing readings in 1927, just behind the ‘37 flood, which was 48.7,” with the level destined to rise by stages to 48.1 by Wednesday the 11th.

Throughout the briefing, on a corner of the room’s back wall, real-time video images from a helicopter were being projected, showing just how high the water was. Clearly visible were the submerged intersection of Beale St. and Riverfront Drive and widespread flooded areas — involving households on the western edge of Mud Island and industrial areas on President’s Island. (“Islandized” would be the euphemism used by Nations on the later bus tour to describe the latter.)

“I’ve been reading a book called Wicked River, and this river is definitely wicked,” said Colonel Reichling, who described the wide arc of Corps operations underway now on a 24-hour basis — roughly, from Cairo, Illinois, in the north to Natchez and Vicksburg in the South. He and others stressed the importance of the Corps’ decision last week to blow holes in the Birds Point Levee in the Missouri bootheel, an action which resulted in the inevitable flooding of homes and farmlands in that vicinity but one which relieved pressure on extensive downriver areas, including Shelby County and the rest of west Tennessee.

It was the consensus of the various emergency management officials that blowing the Birds Point Levee had been necessary to forestall what might have been a 50-ft. water level here, one that would have been truly catastrophic.

When it came time for the members of the congressional delegation to speak, significant political differences emerged in the way they spoke of the crisis and the way in which it was being managed.

“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 governmental 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 complement Shelby County”) and Blackburn (“I’m pleased that we’re able to meet here as a team”).

In his remarks, both at the briefing and later, when the group’s bus tour did a stop at the Pyramid, where volunteers were hastily sandbagging the building’s perimeter, Cohen emphasized federal action.

As the Corps’ Reichling had done, Cohen mentioned a book, John Barry’s Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America and related it to the “heritage” of Memphis and Shelby County, a saga, as he saw it, in which Washington, D.C., played a large part.

The federal government was providing much of the funding for the current control efforts, Democrat Cohen noted at the briefing. “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, his statement took in the Republican colleagues who were with him. It also took in past luminaries, like “Mayor Crump, former congressman Crump,” who in the wake of the ’37 flood, “got a lot of money.” All in all, said Cohen, “the 9th district has been served well.”

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. Like the other Republicans, he stressed local reaction, “how we react as a team, as a group,” and he responded to Cohen in such a way as to both agree with the Memphis congressman and to pay 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.”

on site at the Pyramid
  • JB
  • on site at the Pyramid

Variations on the same kinds of remarks were made by the congressional group in an impromptu press conference at the Pyramid, held amid busy scenes of volunteers — military, Corps, civilian —— shoveling sand into polyethylene bags and piling them up in a network of protective walls. Cohen once again touted “the federal government [as] an integral part of any disaster program, an integral part of our lives” and warned, “Funds are being depleted from other projects.”

For his part, Fincher once again confined bragging rights more locally: “What makes our state great is the way we come together,” and stressed “how important Memphis and Shelby County are to the state.”

Mixed in with the boilerplate and ideological pronouncements and legitimate expressions of concern were some light remarks. At the Pyramid, Cohen wished out loud for Bass Pro, the now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t suitors for rights to the building, to show up with “some boats,” just in case. And, on the bus ride back to Avery, as she looked out the window at flotsam moving by in the raging Mississippi, Blackburn observed, “Well, I think there’s going to be a lot of driftwood to pick up.”

On that bus ride back, there was a good deal of sober reflection, as well. Blackburn had earlier wondered how the threat of floodwaters on President’s Island — where several operations had shut down by way of precaution — might impact future industrial recruitment. Now, 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 brought up the subject of the areas in upper West Tennessee affected by the blowing of the Birds Point Levee. Though he supported that action and saw it as draining off potential tides that could have drenched large portions of his district, he commented on the inevitable damage the diversion of floodwaters had caused to nearby farmers. “There’s something else — how much farmland is impacted by this. This is critical in the Ag community. A lot of farmers had crops contracted.”

In the subsequent conversation, it emerged that nobody really knew the degree to which the proprietors of those farmlands might be compensated — or by whom. Steve Barry, local emergency management director for the Corps of Engineers, 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.”

Not long after that note of uncertainty, and some subsequent uneasy conversation about last year’s flooding of Nashville by the previously unfeared Cumberland and about the simultaneous presence of Alexander’s Senate colleague Bob Corker at tornado-damage sites elsewhere in Tennessee, the tour bus returned to the Avery Ave. site from which the it had departed an hour or so earlier.

Considering the implications of the emergency — past, present, and projected — Luttrell tried to do some positive summing-up. City, county, state, and feds — they all had begun to relax their sense of turf-protection and separateness. “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.


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