Tuesday, May 31, 2011


As the flood waters start to recede, and I am thankful that my Memphis home, Delta cottage, and Delta farm have not flooded, my mind is literally flooding with thoughts about the Great Flood of 2011. Here are a few:

The fear and uncertainty, that I felt only briefly and that others are still feeling, as we wait for the waters to recede, keeping our fingers crossed that the levees will hold until the gates can be opened (mid-June?) and the water levels drop in the backwater Delta.

The understanding that we better prepare, at least a little, for a flood that will hopefully never happen. Packing up silver, family photographs, and other special momentos of our life and lives before us so we too can pass these treasures on to future generations.

The tough morale decisions that had to be made to sacrifice the homes and businesses of a few to spare such a hardship on the many.

The realization that political decisions made over the past 84 years both saved the backwater Delta (through the development of a network of mainline and backwater levees, channels, and flood gates) and still left it vulnerable because the final stage of flood control, pumps on the backwater side of the levee, were vetoed in 2008 by the EPA.

Whittington Levee near our 5-Mile Farm, Louise, MS 5/28/11
The economic impact on farmers that lost their crops; small businesses in small towns that have been washed away; casinos closed for 3 weeks leaving many jobless and tax revenues diminished.

The isolation, and general hassle, caused by flooded roads and highways.

Old 5-Mile Road east of Whittington Levee, Humphreys County 5/28/11
The brutal fact that, as devastating as the flood has been, the clean up will take longer and cost more, prolonging the suffering and economic damage.

But as horrible as the flood has been, there have been bright spots as well.

Normal, everyday people, started facebook pages to increase availability of accurate information and dispel rumors that only cause panic.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proved that they are, indeed, one of our country's best assets, acting with knowledge, skill, professionalism, all to support their goal of protecting us from the flood.

It was fun learning about sand boils, spillways, and that Google Earth is the easiest website to find the sea level of your home or business (who knew I would ever care?).

And natural disasters, do, in the end, bring people together. They remind us of our shared interests as well as our shared risk, pain, and even reward. They help build community and bind us to each other.

The Great Flood of 2011 10 days after the crest at Memphis, TN 5/20/11
I wonder if my grandchildren will ask me to tell them the stories of the Great Flood of 2011 the way I used to ask my Delta grandparents to tell me, once again, about the Great Flood of 1927. I hope they do but I hope they will not live through their own flood, and will only have my stories to tell their grandchildren.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Out of Control

Refugees from the Great  Flood of 1927
I will always remember my Delta family stories of "The Great Flood of 1927". My grandparent's house in Louise, MS was forever marked about 6 feet up on the walls with a faint line that I was told was the flood water line. The story is that they built wooden platforms on which they placed their furniture, and then roped the platforms near the ceiling. I always wondered if these stories were true,  but my Mother mentioned it again even last night...as we now are waiting for our own "flood of the century".

This spring the South has been exceptionally challenged with what seems to be Mother Nature's unruly behavior. It actually started this winter when Memphis experienced a snow or ice storm every week during January. Even the Delta had more than its share (which is usually none) of snow and ice. The spring thunderstorms and tornadoes came quickly on the heels of the unexpected winter and have brought ravage to my three favorite states: Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama. There I was feeling scared and "out of control" as I rode out my first tornado in my Rolling Fork, MS cottage not knowing that a mere two weeks later so much of my beloved Tuscaloosa, AL, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide (Roll Tide), would be demolished by an EF4 tornado. It sure put my little scare into perspective.

But if unexpected snow, ice and tornadoes weren't enough, all of us in the Delta are now waiting for "the flood of the century". As opposed to tornadoes, you can get early warning about a flood. The scientists can monitor the rising rivers; measure the rainfall amounts; track, graph, and forecast future water levels; calculate the amount of water that can be held back by the levees; and, alas, even model how far and deep the flood waters will flow. I picture some green eye-shaded scientists, number crunchers, and hydrologists (I just learned these professionals even existed) busily working in a basement to get all of this important information to the higher ups so that it can be used to save lives and businesses.

This very logical, business approach to gathering and disseminating information to people like you and me in advance of disaster has now been forever changed by Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube; and smart phones and iPads. Officials used to have the keys to information and they shared it when THEY felt it was appropriate. Today, WE all have the keys to information and expect to get official news quickly. We are often unhappy (or sometimes down right angry) if we don't get that news when WE want it, not when the officials want to give it to us.

Facebook pages from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are keeping people in the Mississippi Delta, Missouri, Nashville, and communities potentially impacted by the flood up to date. Information on river gauge levels, including graphs and charts, are available on  the Corps of Engineer and NOAA websites. NOAA even has an "advanced hydrologic prediction service" on their site that shows past and future river water levels for several locations on any river you could care about! Easy access to these social media tools and sites "democratizes" information, making it just as available to me as it is to the green-eye-shade scientists and statisticians. And, this information is available when we want and need it. As an aside, Facebook has played an important role in mobilizing volunteers and donations helping the victims of the recent tornadoes. Toomer's for Tuscaloosa, Auburn students/grads/fans providing help for victims of the April 27 tornadoes, has over 80,000 "fans" and is mobilizing support all over the country for supplies and donations.

But not all officials are taking advantage of these new tools. For example, the Shelby County Office of Preparedness here in Memphis updates their website about once a day, usually in the evening. It appears they may update their flood maps more frequently, but they don't let anyone know when an update has been posted and don't date and time-stamp their updates either. They don't have a push strategy at all -- they expect us to come to them. Even the Memphis District of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers doesn't have a Facebook page, so Memphis area residents have to rely on the other Districts for information.

Wolf River Greenway, Memphis, TN as water receded on April 30, 2011
So, all I can do is sit back and wait for the "flood of the century". I now have to worry about it for two houses!! In Memphis, my home sits almost on the banks of the Wolf River and has been off, on, and now off again the "likely" flooded list. In Rolling Fork, my house will flood (as will the entire city of Rolling Fork, Louise and all our farm land) if the Mighty Mississippi floods elevations up to 107 feet. The latest news I have (and I will be checking YouTube and Facebook right after I finish this post) is that they expect flooding up to 95 feet. So, for the moment both of my homes and communities are safe.

Having this information helps me feel a little more in control. I can at least think through contingency plans (e.g., have already moved the rugs upstairs and will move the upholstered furniture up there if we go back on the list; can go down to Rolling Fork to help move furniture out of the cottage next weekend). I can prepare myself for the fear, disappointment, and concern I will have if the flood does come to me and my family. I can begin to focus on what I can do to help others.

Estimated inundation of the backwater area May 2011
In the last "Great Flood" in 1927, 27,000 square miles were flooded with the flooded area being 50 miles wide and 100 miles long. It caused over $400 million in damages and 246 people were killed in 7 states. At one time, the Mississippi River reached a width of 60 miles, just south of Memphis. My Mississippi Delta grandparents saved their furniture by putting it on platforms and raising the platforms up to the ceiling.

Every now and then Mother Nature has a way of reminding us that we are not in control. I guess this season, she is taking several opportunities to drive that message home. I hope we are listening!