August 1, 2003
So where were all the news-trucks and reporters?
Memphis experienced its worst natural disaster in its history last week Because the loss of life thankfully was not great, and it was not officially a hurricane or tornado, it didn't get much national ink.
But it WAS a hurricane. 100 mph winds tore through the entire 5-county metro area, extending into Arkansas and Mississippi. The greatest tragedy is that at least nine people died as a result of the storm or its aftermath.
The magnitude and widespread scope of the damage is unprecedented. 306,000 homes and businesses were left without power, and some are told to expect to be out of service for another week or so. Major property damage is everywhere. City officials estimate a 4 week time-frame for complete clean up and restoration. Is this newsworthy? Not on the day that Qusay and Uday were gunned down.
Have you ever seen a 24-inch diameter sweet gum tree bent at a 45 degree angle about 30 feet up its 50 ft. trunk? Or a 75 ft.x 3 ft. diameter oak snapped in the middle? They say the winds were 100 mph, but I think it takes a force greater than that to cause a huge tree to just bend. Unfortunately, 100's of great majestic old oaks, maples, poplars, sweet gums and many others were destroyed.
Many construction projects had major setbacks. Others have to start all over. The new basketball arena for the NBA Memphis Grizzlies, The Fed-Ex Forum is now way behind schedule because of toppled cranes.
Nighttime gave the city an eerie feel. With no street lights or traffic lights, familiar intersections looked totally foreign with the added effect of downed trees cutting wide streets from 6 lanes to 2. I found myself getting disoriented in the neighborhood where I grew up, and I'm good with maps and directions.
Huge trees and power lines are down all over the place. On North Mendenhall, all the power lines on an entire 4-block are down. Avon Road is blocked off by downed trees and caution cones. 4 and 5 foot wide trees fell and have cut homes in half at various places, many in the beautiful Chickasaw Gardens neighborhood. Ones only slightly smaller broke in half or remain bent at a 45 degree angle. Entire streets in Midtown are totally clogged with large trees and storm debris. Linden Ave. looks like a Hurricane Andrew scene.
My occasion for being in Memphis in the aftermath of the Big Storm was my 30th high school reunion. I wasn't going to miss it. I was lucky-I had booked a hotel room a week before. Upon checking in, I invited some less fortunate people I found in the lobby to use my phone so they could to try to find a room. Visiting my hometown in the aftermath of its greatest natural disaster in modern history brought a series of frustrations and minor hardships:
-I never did contact a number of friends and relatives I usually see because they had no power or phone. Cell phones were the only form of communication for some.
-I wonder about a favorite auntie who's nearing 90. I'm told the storm left her depressed for the first time in her long life-so depressed she would not see me. I hear she's otherwise OK, but I also worry about her priceless collection of 17th and 18th Century European Master Paintings. Hopefully, she moved them to a friend's home where they could stay air-conditioned.
-On my first and second night in town, I drove around in the dark looking for an open grocery store or restaurant.
-I waited in LONG lines at some intersections where traffic signals were out. Remarkably, Memphis drivers, not known for their courtesy or driving skills, quickly got into the habit of treating every intersection as a 4-Way Stop. The City never did put temporary stop signs at intersections, though they did have cops directing traffic at some of the big intersections during daylight.. The most dangerous intersections were the ones with no signal, traffic lights or warning that a 4-Way Stop was there.
-I enjoyed take-out a meal by flashlight with my mother and stepfather in stifling humidity.
-I visited with one old friend on his back patio, until the mesquitos ended the visit.
Bear in mind, Memphis is a place where everyone has air-conditioning. Summer nights are often hot and streamy; days are real hot and real steamy. To many, it's unthinkable or at least uncivilized to live without air conditoning-until now. At my home in the Bay Area, I've used my window AC on three days this summer. In Memphis, there might be three days between May and September when you can do without.
On Getwell Road on a hot Saturday afternoon, I saw people literally hanging out their windows for a breath of less humid air, hoping for a breeze. Others just accepted misery. What else can you do? I happened to see Cybil Shepard's brother, Bill. I had never seen him look so unhappy or hopeless. He was enjoying shopping in an air-conditioned natural foods store. At closing time, he was not looking forward to returning to a home with no lights, power or fresh air.
The upside of a situation like that is the bonding that occurs among citizens who otherwise would not speak to each other. The kindness of strangers abounded. Those with fireplaces and wood stoves have enough free firewood to last for years. Scavenger trucks are all over town.
I drove around in awe of the power of what had occurred. Cruising my old neighborhoods, I found many old, familiar trees destroyed. That was deeply sad. A dozen or more times a day I found myself saying, "Thank G-d it wasn't worse."
My mother lives in a beautiful ranch-style house with a lot of glass. While huge trees rested against their bedroom and skylight, the only damage was to a corner of their carport. Thank G-d it wasn't worse. On my first visit there in daylight, I walked around taking pictures of some of the damage. The ruins of a dozen or more estate trees led me to grieve. For a while I felt stupid crying over fallen trees when people died as a result of this storm.
Later I drove past a house where I grew up. The six-lane street was down to two because of huge trees and scattered yard waste. I saw a man standing in the right-of-way by a pile of huge trees. As my car approached, I wondered why he didn't move out of the way. When I got near, I could see he was grieving deeply over his losses, and didn't feel like moving. I saw other men crying in their front yards-southern macho men. So it was OK for me to grieve too.
With a news industry that loves and thrives on disasters, why didn't this one get any national ink? It wasn't officially a hurricane or tornado, at least as we know them. The Big Storm was caused by an unusual weather system called a "Bow Echo System." It is a rarely occurring inland rain and windstorm that is always violent and devastating. What we have here is an inland hurricane, so rare it is only theoretical to some meteorologists.
Everyone I knew had their own account of where they were and what they experienced. My mother said she went outside to get the paper around 6:30 a.m. "I felt a few raindrops in the driveway, and by the time I got back to the bedroom I felt like I was in the middle of the Bogart movie, Key Largo."
My niece Ellie, who is 7, woke up her baby-sitter and said, "Dude, the power's out!" Then, they all watched the violent storm from a 2nd floor window. Mom didn't like that and they've been prepped to retreat to the basement if anything like that happens again.
Some of my out-of-town classmates stayed away from the reunion after hearing the news. Their parents told them not to come, they couldn't accommodate them. Some locals were too involved in recovering their property, that the long-anticipated reunion of friends from 30 years ago was suddenly less important. So we'll have a 35th.
Even if it were a busy news day, would this have received more notice if it occurred in Chicago, Houston or St. Louis? I suspect so. New York, LA, or the Bay Area-Top Story, you bet!
Memphis has a long-suffering inferiority complex. Some historians say it never fully recovered from the Yellow Fever Epidemic of the 1800's. Though it is the major metro area of 1 million people covering three states, and five counties, it has never had a high self-esteem. It has a history of mixed notoriety: the birthplace of the blues, the home of rock 'n' roll, the city where MLK was killed, and the place where Lennox Lewis pummeled Mike Tyson once and for all.
Last week, the City of Memphis got pummled. In two or three weeks they hope to be back to normal. It's not as sexy as a tornado, hurricane or global bounty hunting, but it is news.