Politics » Politics Feature



The current predicament of post-Katrina New Orleans resembles that of post-Yellow Fever Memphis 125 years ago, and Shelby County historian Ed Williams reckons that it will take a similar lengthy period of time for the devastated and now depopulated Crescent City to regain its position as a viable urban center.

Williams estimates that the best-case scenario for flooded-out New Orleans was a rehabilitation period of ten years – as compared to the 15 years it took for Memphis to regain its charter after being ravaged by Yellow Fever in 1879 and reduced to the status of a “taxing district.”

The probable difference in recovery-time of some five years could be attributed to the technologically improved recovery systems of the 21st century, plus another factor Williams regards as significant: “In the case of New Orleans, the presence of two refineries and the importance of the city’s port facilities will be an incentive to get things done as soon as possible,” he said Tuesday after attending a special meeting of the Shelby County Commission devoted to the county’s Katrina-relief operations.

“More than 50 percent of all the United States grain shipments go through the Port of New Orleans,” Williams said. “You can divert a fair percentage of that – maybe to Mobile or to Houston or somewhere – but it’s expensive to divert it, and it will probably turn out that it is cheaper to put the port facilities back into operation there at New Orleans. And that means you’re going to have to have people to operate the port facility.”

Williams added that, for that matter, Memphis’ own recovery in the late 19th century had been stimulated by the construction of the Harrahan Bridge, completed in 1892. “That was the only bridge south of St. Louis that spanned the Mississippi River, and it allowed Memphis to come back into being as a commercial transportation center. And once that happened, things began to come back.”

The commission meeting, presided over by chairman Michael Hooks Sr. was devoted to presentations from county mayor A C Wharton and various other county officials as to the status and nature of preparations made by the county to accommodate refugees from the New Orleans area in the wake of devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

Among other things, commissioners learned that nearly 400 temporary students had already been admitted to either the city or the county school systems. Indicating that it was currently “impossible” to estimate the total cost of the various measures taken locally, Wharton said that President Bush’s extension of a declaration of emergency to include Tennessee would enable all costs to be compensated eventually at “100 percent” of value.

Both he and various commissioners and county officials made a point of stating that the primary consideration in providing refugee services would be their need rather than cost to the county.

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