Flood damage vex TN residents

Flood waters still cover many homes in Memphis as responders focus on more than 700 homes severely damaged

BY JOHN PAPE | MEMPHIS, TN | May 24, 2011

An April 21 view of Memphis from the Space Station.
Credit: NASA

NASA's Earth Observatory provides a view from space showing Memphis in April and on May 10 after the flooding swamped the region.
Credit: NASA

While much of the focus on the Mississippi River flooding is on the crest as it moves downstream into Louisiana, the recovery has begun in upstream areas like Memphis.

Assessment teams from federal and state agencies, working with volunteers from a host of faith-based organizations, have begun to determine how much work will needed to rehabilitate the more than 700 homes that have been classified as “uninhabitable” after being inundated by floodwaters.

Still, recovery officials said, many parts of the Memphis area remain under water and the full extent of the damage will probably not be known for several more weeks.

In its latest update, the Shelby County Office of Preparedness said both the City of Memphis and the county were only beginning the process of assessing the level of damage sustained by the flooding. In many cases, roads are still flooded.

“The Mississippi River and its tributaries will remain high for several more days. This will slow down the clean-up effort and prolong traffic delays,” the county said in a statement. “Many streets and intersections are closed because of high water.”

Additionally, power continues to be spotty in some areas. Memphis Light Gas and Water said it may take several more days, or even weeks, before full power is restored in all areas. Additionally, roads that were underwater will not be re-opened until public works and engineering crews confirm they are safe for travel.

A flood recovery task force has been established through the Shelby County Office of Preparedness.

Once the high water goes down, fire prevention and code enforcement officers will be among the first to go into flooded areas to document damage to homes, businesses and other properties.

Despite official warnings to stay out of still-flooded areas, some residents like Frank Jessup are venturing into parts of the city where only rooftops are visible in once-familiar neighborhoods.

Jessup spent much of last Sunday in a flat-bottom boat checking on his 78-year-old mother’s home, one of several hundred still under water in south Memphis. While the water has receded a few feet since the river crested, Jessup said only the roof of the house where he grew up could be seen.

“It’s heart-breaking; it really is. These are streets where I grew up but, except for a few landmarks, I wouldn’t know where I was,” Jessup said. “The only way I was sure I was at my mom’s house was there’s this big tree where I used to have a tree house when I was a kid. When I saw the top of that old tree, I knew the roof next to it was mom’s home.”

Jessup also said he has not yet told his mother the full extent of the flooding.

“She kind of talks like there’s only a few inches of water in the house; like they could ring the carpets out and everything will be OK. We haven’t had the heart to tell her how bad it really is,” Jessup said. “We’re just afraid she’ll give up when she finds out the house is probably destroyed. She’s lived there for more than 40 years.”

While the slow retreat of floodwaters is impacting the damage assessment process, faith-based organizations like the Memphis Conference of The United Methodist Church have already begun reaching out to help flood victims.

Last week, more than 2,500 cleaning buckets were delivered to the First United Methodist Church in Memphis as part of coordinated flood relief efforts of the local conference. The cleaning buckets include supplies that allow flood survivors to begin cleaning up after the flood. Until the floodwaters recede, the cleaning kits are being stored in a building next door to the church.

Volunteers from area Methodist churches and Memphis Conference disaster response teams, as well as local volunteers, helped with the effort to unload the buckets, according to Jay Ferguson, a member of Memphis First UMC and the Memphis Conference Area 1 (Memphis) Emergency Response Team.

Donated cleaning buckets, each valued at $55, arrived at the downtown Memphis location from as close as Covington, Tenn. and from as far away as Virginia. Many came from the United Methodist Committee on Relief Sager Brown Depot in Baldwin, La., Ferguson said.

Distribution of the buckets will begin as soon as floodwaters go down enough to allow cleanup efforts to begin.

The Memphis Conference was also coordinating with the United Methodist Committee on Relief in planning for more long-term relief work, including renovation and rebuilding of flood-damaged homes. Ironically, the need for additional flood relief assistance came even as UMCOR Director the Rev. Tom Hazelwood was set to travel to Tennessee to follow up on recovery efforts in Nashville and Memphis from severe flooding in 2010.

Hazelwood said the outbreak of weather-related disasters in recent months, including communities hit by killer tornadoes, was the worst in his memory.

“In the 13 years I’ve worked in U.S. Disaster Response, there never has been a series of emergencies as widespread as what we’re seeing this year,” Hazelwood said. “There have been tornado outbreaks before, but the outbreaks of 2011 have affected communities in so many annual conferences, most severely in Alabama. And then there’s this ongoing flooding. There also are wildfires across the Southwest; it’s pretty unprecedented in terms of the scope and variety of events, and the hurricane season hasn’t even started yet.”

In addition to faith-based organizations, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent advance teams into Memphis and Shelby County to assist those whose homes were flooded. The teams are available at the FEMA Disaster Recovery Center, located inside the Shelby County Code Enforcement Office, to help flood victims register for federal assistance. So far, more than 2,000 people have filed flood damage claims with FEMA.

Even as federal, state and faith-based organizations worked to help flood survivors, the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office issued a warning against con artists attempting to take advantage of the situation.

“While countless Shelby County citizens work tirelessly to minimize flood damage, there are those who may view this as an opportunity to exploit vulnerable victims,” District Attorney Amy Weirich said. “Those who choose to turn flood victims into crime victims will be met with tough prosecution by the district attorney's office.”

Hoping to head off victimization of flood victims by con artists, Shelby County officials have started requiring contractors and volunteers conducting flood-related repairs to get photo identification cards.

In announcing the ID program, County Mayor Mark Luttrell said the cards will allow residents to easily identify contractors who have registered with the Office of Preparedness and have agreed to follow certain guidelines established by the county. The ID initiative does not guarantee the quality of the work, county officials stressed.

Preparedness Director Bob Nations said no serious fraud problems had yet been reported, but county officials were concerned unscrupulous contractors often descend in the wake of natural disasters.

“This is the time in the disaster cycle where you see fraud and scam and con start moving into the area,” he said.

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