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Flood of the Century yields competing views


While much of the focus has been on protecting downtown Memphis from flood damage, in a world that is light years away from the bright lights of Beale Street and tourists, parts of North Memphis is largely grasping for signs of hope, some say. Ryne Hancock
Special to the Tri-State Defender

For days, local and national media crews, residents and tourists have had their attention fixated on downtown Memphis, especially in the area south of Front Street.

Water overflowing the banks of the Mississippi River floods the intersection of Riverside Drive and Beale Street. On Monday (May 9) this was one of about 50 roads closed due to flooding. A full list of road closures can be found on the website of the Shelby County Office of Preparedness www.staysafeshelby.us. (Photo by Brian Ramoly)

Emma Owens looks at ruptured sewer vent on May Street on Monday (May 9). (Photo by Scott Banbury)

Cornelius Holliday standing in floodwaters outside his home on North Willett north of Chelsea on Monday (May 9). (Photo by Scott Banbury)

On Mother’s Day, a holiday normally devoted to spending time with family, hundreds congregated on the Beale Street pedestrian bridge overlooking Tom Lee Park and Riverside Drive watching Old Man River wreak havoc, with some going as far as stepping into the rising floodwaters to become part of history.

But while much of the focus has been on protecting downtown Memphis from flood damage, in a world that is light years away from the bright lights of Beale Street and tourists, parts of North Memphis, located in zip codes 38107 and 38108, is largely grasping for signs of hope, some say.

“The main issue here,” resident and activist Scott Banbury said Saturday morning, “is not the physical infrastructure that was set in place years ago because they haven’t been tested, but the inability for public officials to go out and survey the damage or in other words, get out on the street.”

That, however, is not the way Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and city officials see it. In fact, Wharton on Wednesday said he met early on with division heads such as Police Director Toney Armstrong to set in motion steps to gather data about areas with frequent flooding history. That data, he said, was used to direct help and information to residents, with an eye toward those who might not normally make use of the Internet and social media outlets.

Local agencies have kept residents informed through social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook. Banbury said while social media is a good way to keep residents posted on updates, there are other alternatives to keeping North Memphis residents informed on flooding.

“Social media updates are good for those that use them, but what about the ones who don’t have access to the Internet or even watch the 10 o’clock news? How will they find out what’s going on with their neighborhood?”

Banbury pointed out that the sewer pumps, which are pumps used to pump out raw sewage and sewage water, were cut off last Thursday (May 5), causing various sewer vents near flood basins to rupture.

“The media as well as the Health Department has done very little to inform the residents around this area about the potential health risks,” he said, “But they can hold press conferences in Downtown Memphis and talk about saving Beale Street businesses from being washed away.”

Another resident, Emma Owens, 88, who lives on May Street north of Chelsea and east of McLean, agreed with Banbury.

Owens, who has lived on the North Memphis street for more than 20 years, said that Public Works came on her street Friday and did not warn residents of potential dangers.

“I saw Public Works across the street from us and instead of talking to residents about the dangers of potential flooding, they came by to get gate equipment.”

Directly across the street from Owens’ residence, one of the flood basins used to drain out sewage water and prevent her neighborhood from flooding is dotted by a lone sewage fountain that was created due, in part, to the vents rupturing.

“I was out here the other day getting paper away from the sewage drain because people that walk down this street or even drive down it make it a habit to throw their trash in them,” she said.

As the Mississippi River crested Tuesday, residents of North Memphis were in the beginning stages of picking up the pieces.

“So far, there are 400 counted for in the shelters that we have throughout the county,” said Steve Shular, public affairs officer with the Shelby County Mayor’s Office. “The actual number of people evacuated from their homes is hard to pinpoint because it’s hard to tell how many left to be with relatives or decided to stay the course.”

Shular brought up the issues with sewage vents, saying that much of the submerging of vents in affected areas has more to do with tributaries than raw sewage.

“With the Wolf and Loosahatchie River overflowing, it creates a backflow of sorts,” he said Wednesday morning.

Mary Cashiola, brand management specialist for the city, said that when the flooding began, the city was on top of it.

“The city wanted to make sure that when the waters rose, they were going to prevent as much flooding as they could,” said Cashiola.

Still Banbury sees it differently.

“This is – on a smaller scale – the same thing that happened in New Orleans after Katrina. Tons of focus has been placed on downtown areas yet instead there are people in this very area of North Memphis that don’t have the means to rebuild their lives,” he said.

“It’s a classic case of ignoring the needs of the disenfranchised and catering to the rich and powerful.”

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