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The migration of displaced people from the devastated Gulf Coast offers challenges and opportunities.


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Mississippi 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 a 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 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 could 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. 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 -- seem to be serving him well. Herenton 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 Mid-South 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, Mississippi, 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 FedExForum last week was canceled 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 canceled on account of 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 is an issue. Within days, the mayor got the governor on board, 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 was one of those numbers that gains currency without a solid foundation. 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 revised it downward to 7,500 on Tuesday. The number could rise in the coming weeks. Shelby County mayor A C 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. 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 and businesses while assisting but also limiting the number of new residents with special needs that will make them dependent on public services. This is the uncomfortable reality behind the go-slow approach and Governor Phil 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.

Relief will come through something called the Memphis Clergy Relief Fund. Retired Memphis banker Tom Garrott is leading a drive to raise $10 million. 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. 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.

One week after Katrina hit, Memphis still had not filled its only shelter. Kane was getting the word out that "Memphis is open for business" and defending the decision not to open The Pyramid. Larry Cox, president of the Memphis Airport Authority, was urging Southwest Airlines to come to Memphis, since New Orleans' airport was closed. "We've got plenty of room for them," Cox said.

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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