Last Saturday night, as attendees of the farewell concert conducted by departing Memphis Symphony Orchestra conductor David Loebel awaited a possible encore from the orchestra and its longtime maestro, they were informed instead from the stage that a tornado was approaching and that the Cannon Center was directly in its path.
Some of the concertgoers chose to exit the building and make for the streets, joining in the general exodus from downtown that included refugees from suspended performances of the Beale Street Music Fest at drenched Tom Lee Park. Others, especially those who had parked in the Convention Center garage, were directed into another part of the building, where the annual Marguerite Piazza St. Jude fund-raising gala was in progress, there to ride out the emergency.
Thus did a stirring rendition of Beethoven's "Eroica" conclude, but the sense of heroic resolve would continue in the actions of Shelby County preparedness director Bob Nations and the first responders from city, county, state, and federal agencies whose efforts to stem the tide, quite literally, of a natural disaster would extend into the weekend.
Flood damage and displacement were large in northern Shelby County, especially in Millington. Sections of West and Middle Tennessee were hit even harder, with the banks of the Cumberland River overflowing and submerging whole streets and districts in downtown Nashville.
After a tour of affected areas, Governor Phil Bredesen requested a presidential disaster declaration for 52 Tennessee counties, including Shelby County, and that action should end up providing access to various forms of federal assistance for dislocated areas and individuals.
State government will also be conducting joint damage assessments with FEMA as of May 10th, or as soon as flood waters have receded enough to make reasonable determinations.
In the long run, all this concerted activity will speed whatever recovery of the affected areas is possible. All things considered (and we are knocking on whatever wood happens to float by), Memphis and Shelby County have been lucky over the years. Our near neighbors to the east in Jackson and Madison County have been walloped again after being devastated by tornadoes twice in recent years, and Nashville has also been on the receiving end of some woeful hits in recent memory.
We in these parts have taken our lumps, though — the mid-1990s ice storm that resulted in fatalities and left thousands of Memphians and Shelby Countians powerless for weeks, the "Hurricane Elvis" windstorm of 2002 that caused further widespread devastation, and the Super Tuesday typhoon of February 2008, which did even more. And, as Bredesen noted in his initial assessment this week, some 27,000 people in Shelby County were deprived of power by the weekend storms (as compared to 41,000 in Davidson County).
It appears that we — most of us — have dodged another bullet. And there are at least two lessons to be learned from it all: that government, Tea Party resentments notwithstanding, is still necessary to organize a response to such disasters; and that the disasters themselves, the Flat-Earth deniers among us notwithstanding, seem to be accelerating in an area of significant climate change.
More bullets will be coming. We had best make ready.