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New River Plan Aims to Battle Floodwater and 'Make Room for the River'

Office of Sustainability hopes to win funding from a national resiliency competition.


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Riverside Drive after the 2011 flood - MEMPHIS  PUBLIC LIBRARY & INFORMATION CENTER
  • Memphis Public Library & Information Center
  • Riverside Drive after the 2011 flood

Four years after severe storms pounded the Mid-South, some areas haven't yet fully recovered. But city leaders are working on a $116 million plan to patch them up and make Memphis more resilient to Mother Nature.

Tornado sirens blared through the darkness as hail and rain pounded Memphis one evening in early April 2011. Twenty-one days later, ominous dark clouds dropped sheets of rain on the city in a storm system that also brought a tornado through neighboring Little Rock. Memphis was blasted again two days later and again one month later.

Damages from flooding, tornados, and straight-line winds totaled about $2 billion. More than 345,000 households and businesses lost power. Floodwaters damaged numerous homes, the Raleigh-Millington Road Bridge, and Nonconnah Creek and the Loosahatchie and Wolf Rivers. Shoreline erosion on President's Island threatened wildlife habitats, farming, and the operations at the International Port of Memphis, which has an annual economic impact of more than $5.5 billion.

Four years later, about $9 million is needed to fully fix President's Island, about $4 million to fix damage to the tributaries, $400,000 to repair parks and stormwater infrastructure, and 80 homes still need repair.

To address these needs and to plan for future disasters, the Memphis-Shelby County Office of Sustainability (MSCOS) has applied for the National Disaster Resilience Competition. The office is a finalist in the competition, against other counties, states, cities, and Puerto Rico for a piece of a $1 billion grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The money aims to help areas recover from past disasters and improve their resiliency against future disasters.

"Catastrophic events are becoming more commonplace, and crisis is the new normal," said Dr. Judith Rodin, president of The Rockefeller Foundation, HUD's partner in the competition. "This is why it is critical for communities, large and small, to place a premium on building resilience. They can be prepared for whatever comes their way, and disruptions won't become disasters."

Shelby County's plan, called "Greenprint for Resiliency," focuses primarily on flood storage in the places hardest hit by the 2011 storms: along Big Creek in Millington, along Wolf Creek in Memphis, and South Cypress Creek in Southwest Memphis.

"While it's really important to not only think about how we can better protect our communities against future flooding," said MSCOS administrator John Zeanah, "it is also important, given a lot of socioeconomic vulnerabilities that we have, to protect communities that may have a difficult time identifying the resources to build back."

Projects in these areas will piggyback on the existing Mid-South Greenprint and Sustainability plan, which proposes connecting green spaces in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi with a series of trails and greenways. Projects in the resiliency plan would also come with other improvements to create trails, aid local food production, provide safe transportation alternatives, and more.

Also, a regional resiliency plan will be developed to toughen Shelby County against future storms, of course, but also heavy wind, extreme heat, drought, and severe snow and ice.

In all, the project will cost $116 million. But the county is requesting $70.5 million from the resiliency competition. The rest will come from other committed sources, the plan says.

The application's deadline is October 27. In the meantime, two public hearings have been scheduled about the plan:

• Thursday, Oct. 8 at Golden Gate Cathedral, 3240 James Road, at 5:30 p.m.

• Monday, Oct. 12 at the Whitehaven Library, 4120 Millbranch Road, at 5:30 p.m.


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