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Will mass migration make Memphis the ‘Capital of Mississippi’ once again?


ississippi and Louisiana have huge needs and thousands of displaced people and businesses. Memphis has extra capacity, in everything from individual compassion to vacant offices and abandoned properties to public facilities and services. The response to Hurricane Katrina will permanently reshape Memphis.

In early local media reports, the emphasis was on the outpouring of individual acts of compassion and generosity through donations of time, money, and groceries. But with predictions of a doubling in size of the city of Baton Rouge and one million displaced people from Katrina, the caring and capacity of the city of Memphis itself will become the story on a grand scale.

The signs of a coming major migration to Memphis are everywhere. Last week the University of Southern Mississippi football team practiced at the University of Memphis because USM’s facilities in Hattiesburg were unusable. The Mid-South Coliseum was in play as a possible future site for storm victims with special needs. The Pyramid and Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium suddenly had prospective new tenants while New Orleans shuts down and Baton Rouge and Jackson, Mississippi get back on their feet. The University of Memphis and the Memphis City Schools, which closed four elementary schools last year, began accepting students from Louisiana and Mississippi.

Memphis International Airport, where one whole concourse in the passenger terminal is lightly used, could see a big boost in traffic. In Baton Rouge, local officials were quoted last week saying that airport traffic would go from 700,000 passengers a year to 3 million passengers and that the population of the city could double to 500,000.

The Memphis Area Transit Authority serves approximately 40,000 riders, but top executive Will Hudson said last week the ideal capacity is 60,000 riders. Public transportation will be essential to the second wave of storm refugees who do not have cars.

City of Memphis housing officials, along with the Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce and hospital officials, are doing an inventory of housing and hospital availability for a displaced population estimated at one million people in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. A year or two ago, Memphis had a vacant and still usable downtown Baptist Memorial Hospital, now being demolished. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported Sunday that businesses are relocating from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, which literally overnight became the biggest city in Louisiana and will be for some time, and that companies were buying homes and entire apartment complexes for their employees.

With 25 percent unemployment in Mississippi and Louisiana, the Sunday paper in Memphis was filled with pages of classified help-wanted ads and new homes and condominiums for sale.

Seven fire departments in Hinds County Mississippi, which includes Jackson, did not have water Sunday and at least 40,000 people in Jackson and 570,000 statewide did not have power. There were long lines for gas and groceries. And many people still had no idea of the magnitude of the disaster because they were displaced, without power, unsure of the status of their homes, and unable to watch television reports. In New Orleans, police officers were walking off the job. All of a sudden, dry land, running water, a fully staffed police force, and working power are incentives infinitely more valuable than any tax freeze. Land to build on in readily accessible locations such as the Mid-South Fairgrounds and the old Mall of Memphis could become more attractive, as does the sprawling and long orphaned Defense Depot.

Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton is often criticized for things that seem trivial in the scheme of things. In this case, his instincts and handling of the situation have been deft, but he is getting little credit for it. His 14 years of experience as mayor and 10 years as school superintendent – not to mention growing up poor himself – seem to be serving him well. His colleague, Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton, has more than 20 years experience with poor people as the former Shelby County Public Defender. Add Gov. Phil Bredesen, the former mayor of Nashville and chief executive of a major health-care company, and the leadership for dealing with Katrina is solid. Herenton and Wharton resisted suggestions to immediately open The Pyramid or Coliseum, (although that may yet happen) and spoke instead about “the long haul” and not turning compassion into chaos.

The price was temporary confusion. Last Thursday night, 2,000 Mississippi storm victims with “special needs” were supposed to arrive on buses at the Coliseum for an indefinite stay – four days before the Ole Miss-University of Memphis football game at Liberty Bowl Stadium. The announcement at a news conference at City Hall that afternoon was vague as to the nature of the special needs, the duration of the stay, and who would bear the costs. Three hours later the whole thing was called off, with the buses supposedly diverted to military institutions in Jackson and Meridian for want of gasoline. By the weekend, Herenton spokeswoman Gail Jones Carson was saying the Coliseum would be used only as a last resort and then only “for a very short time.”

Herenton talked about “the delicate situation” and not wanting to put either helpers or the helped in danger. He was clearly wary of using the Coliseum or Pyramid, and let other people talk about it at the press conference. Putting people in domes had not worked well in New Orleans or Houston, and the lesson had been learned in Memphis. In a dour footnote, an audition for American Idol scheduled for FedEx Forum last week was cancelled even though there was no talk of using that building for storm victims. It was, perhaps, the first time in Memphis history that an event had been cancelled on account of shame and bad taste.

“Money is no issue,” Herenton said in an unnecessarily churlish response to a reporter’s question about the city’s own financial straits. But paying for long-term relief was and is an issue. Within days, the mayors got the governor on board (and in Memphis personally), and he in turn got the federal government on board and promised to spread the burden of caring for storm victims among Memphis and other cities and the private sector.

The figure of 10,000 displaced people, (calling them refugees was deemed politically incorrect) was one of those numbers that gains currency without a solid foundation. As Bredesen noted, nobody registers when they cross the state line. The first public mention of the number was by Kevin Kane, head of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, who arrived at it by making a spot survey of hotels and relief organizations. If in fact there were at least 10,000 people here, there was of course no reason why the number would not increase by the hour as more and more people flee Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama. Wharton said “we are planning as if a new city is coming to town.”

What sort of city will it be? The first arrivals were people with means and cars who got out early, found gasoline, and drove 400 miles. Later arrivals are likely to be less fortunate and many of them will be poor people dependent on public services who lived in New Orleans and may find urban Memphis more familiar than, say, Tupelo or Nashville. Over time, people of means vote with their feet, as Herenton knows as well as anyone from his experience in the city school system during the decades of massive white flight. Memphis and Shelby County will be competing for tax-paying residents as well as businesses at the same time they are assisting but also limiting the number of new residents with special needs that make them dependent on public services. This is the uncomfortable reality behind the go-slow approach and Bredesen’s promise to do what he can to spread the storm victims around. There will almost certainly be a touchy discussion of race and class if the migration to Memphis increases to tens of thousands instead of 10,000.

Relief will come through something called the The Memphis Clergy Relief Fund. Retired Memphis banker Tom Garrott is leading a drive to raise $10 million. Memphis has the money many times over in wealth bolstered by the stock market over the last ten years, including Garrott’s National Bank of Commerce, whose stock price multiplied nearly 18-fold while he ran the bank. The money will be distributed through Memphis churches and synagogues to families, who will receive $250 per person per month. Garrott, a Mississippi native, vowed to cut red tape and get cash in the hands of storm victims in Memphis who need it. “As to what they do with the money, that’s their business,” he said.

Other speakers at a mass meeting to announce the relief effort suggested there should be means testing, or that money should go through the Emergency Operations Center, or that money should also be given to local people who were poor and homeless before Katrina. That is not going to happen. Garrott & Co. are nothing if not focused. The money will go to storm victims in the Memphis area, whether or not they can produce a Social Security card, as many Latinos cannot.

“We’re going to get cash in the hands of the families and what they do with the money is their business,” Garrott repeated, in case anyone misunderstood him. Questioned about details, he said religious organizations would find “some way to work around it.”

Many years ago, Memphis was known as the unofficial capital of Mississippi, or at least of the Mississippi Delta and northern Mississippi. People came here to shop and celebrate Cotton Carnival and go to ballgames at Crump Stadium. For a couple of weeks, Memphis will be the temporary sports and entertainment capital of Mississippi. The next two or three months will tell whether Memphis will regain that label in a more meaningful way for the longer term.

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