Thursday, July 22, 2004

Hurricane Elvis

One year ago today -- Tuesday, July 22, 2003 -- a sudden storm with 100 mile an hour winds struck Memphis, Tennessee. In less than thirty minutes, a major metropolis was wrecked, swept from the map. America never knew.

I woke up that day around 5:30, turning on the morning news to see how the weather was going to be. Radar was showing a small, strong cell over northeast Arkansas heading to Memphis. It looked bad, but there were no warnings yet. I decided to haul ass, get dressed and out the door, and try to beat the storm.

I walk to work. That morning, I swung by the Rite Aid on Union. The sky was clouding up quickly; no sunrise today. By the time I left the Rite Aid, there was a light sprinkle starting and the sky was pitch black. The time was just after 6:30. In the short distance down the block from Union to Madison, the sky opened up, dumping a torrent of water. Standing at the corner, I discovered I could barely see a block down the road. The rain and wind was getting worse as I stood there. Braving a couple of oncoming cars, I started across the road and realised my mistake: the wind was so strong that if I fell, I wouldn't get back up in time to get out of traffic!

By the time I made it in the door to work, the rain was falling sideways. Literally. I stood at the window, looking across the parking lot to the apartments on the other side. Water falling on the other side of their roof was being blown over the peak, almost like a horizontal waterfall. The winds were still picking up.

Then the power went out. I got out my portable radio and tuned to WREC, AM600. They were reporting a major storm was sweeping through the city. Well, that was obvious, as the winds were shaking the building of the restaurant I worked in! I had started a bit of opening, but once the power went out, I quit, not knowing how long power would remain out. Little did I know....

The radio kept repeating the storm warning, and reporters were calling in from wherever they were with stories of downed trees, blocked roads and damaged homes. It kept looking worse and worse. The rains eventually slowed down, so I went out to Madison to see what it looked like.

It was awful. Across the street, an old oak was down, snapped at the base, lying on Madison. Looking back to the west, I could see another, huge oak was down across from Zinnie's. Limbs and leaves were everwhere. There was a growing sense that something terrible had happened.

I had a feeling that it would be quite a while before we got power, after lunch at least, so I made sure all the coolers and walk-ins stayed closed, to protect the food for as long as possible. I secured a few other things around the store, then dragged a chair to the door on Madison, with the radio in one ear. Reports were still rolling in and it was bad. Very, very bad.

The first amazing thing was how many folks came out within an hour or so of the storm. I have never seen so many pedestrians on Madison! People were out walking around, inspecting the damage. I got stories from them about trees down on other streets and reports of massive trees down all around the city, blocking Poplar even. We shared whatever news we had, trying to figure out what was going on.

I watched a man walking by the apartments across the street as he climbed up the concrete patios to try all the doors and windows he could reach. He knew I was watching, but kept it up anyway. There weren't any openings, so he continued on.

The phones were out, but I eventually figured out that it was because of the base unit not having power, and not the phone lines. We didn't have a spare that wasn't a mobile, so I had to wait to go back home -- by now I was worrying about damage on my street. There's a hundred-plus foot oak across the street from my building and a two-trunked birch that grew right over the roofline.

After a while of watching the tourists, collecting and swapping stories, listening to the news, and wondering what was next, my buddy Amanda came by. She lives nearby and decided to check in with me. She told me there was no power anywhere in the area, except a small block down around Anderton's for some reason. She pulled up a chair and we just shot the breeze, discussing what little we knew.

I had decided to stay at the store until one of the managers came by, but by 9:30 no one was there yet. No calls, of course. Finally, another worker swung by, Phil. He had been driving all over the city to see what had happened and he had horror stories of ruined buildings, trees down everywhere, crushed cars, plate glass blown out, power out universally, Union almost undrivable from the debris, etc. I figured I'd take a chance here, so I locked up the store, said good-bye to Amanda and hopped into Phil's car.

First thing, we tried to drive by my apartment. We couldn't turn in at Belvedere and Monroe because of a downed oak behind the First Tennessee ATM kiosk blocking the whole street. I started worrying pretty hard now. But when we got to the other side of the block, my building was just fine! The hundred-plus foot oak still stood proudly.

However.... Another oak in the middle of the block was lying over the street and had crushed a car parked under it. A third oak was down, blocking the drives into another apartment building. Soem of the lesser, but still enormous, trees had broken and hanging limbs. One had fallen over a home and snapped the roof. It was spectacular.

We ran into my boss, who was also out looking at the carnage. I told her what was going on at the store, such as it was, and she told me about the Cooper-Young area where she lives, which was also seriously blocked from tree damage.

Phil and I toured Midtown. It was unbelievable how much tree damage there was and how many stores, homes and businesses were affected. It occured to me that one good side-effect of this storm was how many sick and diseased and dead trees had been exposed, had been brought down. Memphis is one of the greenest cities in America, and proudly so. We have one of the most extensive canopies you'll ever see. However, a lot of folks don't take care of their heritage and today was the day we paid for our negligence.

By now, listening to radio, it was clear that this storm had been something of hurricane strength and that most, if not all, of Memphis had been clobbered. Walloped hard. Huge sections of the city were without power and, because it had been mostly by tree damage, it would be a long time before the trees were removed or pruned, the old lines untangled and new lines could be strung. We were in for a repair and recovery period a lot like the Ice Storm of 1994, where some folks went without heat and electricity for weeks, except that this was summertime in Memphis. Heat and humidity would smother the city after the storm clouds passed and a lot of old and sick folks were going to be in peril.

Let ne detour a bit here. Some things had happened during the initial storm strike that no one knew -- because of the power outage. Some television stations managed to stay on the air with generators, the studios barely lit. Amazingly, both the main AM stations, WREC and WDIA, were still broadcasting and had kicked into emergency mode.

But I heard later that the classic rock station was broadcasting during the initial strike. One of their regular guests was driving down Riverside and called them on-air to describe the incredible, inky black clouds massing over the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River. She was talking as the storm crossed the River, then began to scream. The station broadcast her hollering obsceneties -- f-bombs and J f'n C -- as she thought she was going to die. She described how the storm seemed to pick up speed and power as it crossed into Tennessee and Memphis.

At the studio, walls were shaking violently and glass almost blew out. Cars parked along the street below suffered roof and glass damage from flying limbs. The DJ's kept talking, frightened and fearful of death. Winds in the downtown were estimated at 80 miles per hour, with gusts measured in some spots at over 100 mph. Both of the construction cranes over the FedEx Forum were bent due to the winds and several blocks of the area around Beale Street were abandoned. I happened to catch the staff at the classic rock station on the air later that morning as they were instructed by police to leave their studios. Construction was halted that week as builders tried to figure out how to bring the cranes down safely. The Clear Channel radio stations downtown were forced to move to the WPTY building at Union Extended and Poplar, in extra studios in the basement! But they did stay on the air.

There was a car stopped at Parkway and Summer, waiting for a light as the storm swept in. The woman driver and her passenger missed being killed by a falling oak by a matter of mere inches. Their car was completely crushed from right behind the driver's seat to the rear of the vehicle.

It turns out that this was a "perfect storm." The cell that came in from Arkansas was simply a pop-and-go summer storm, the kind you see all the time in this part of the South. But a rare confluence of conditions right over West Memphis dumped massive new energy into the storm, pushing a lot of warm, moist air into a layer of cold air above. The incoming air turned cold, lost its moisture as sudden rain, then came flowing back down at hurricane speeds.

The storm cut a swathe more than a mile wide from the middle of downtown, across the heart of Midtown, through Parkway Village and on into Mississippi. There were a lot of anecdotal reports of funnel clouds, but none were proven, including one over Poplar and Goodlett. The National Weather Service radar couldn't catch the storm's energies correctly, so there was insufficient understanding of its power until it was far too late. The NWS insists, though, that this was pure straight-line winds; no tornadoes.

It didn't matter. Whatever had hit was equal in effect to a hurricane, and far worse than the Ice Storm of 1994. Power was out everywhere. The airport was closed. (It turns out they had no backup generator! One had to be trucked in. Can you believe that?) Communications were fubar'ed. Roads and streets were impassible across enormous sections of the city. No one had any real idea of the extent of the damage until the next day.

You would think that this would be front page news across the country. Unfortunately for Memphis, this was the day that Uday and Qusay Hussein were almost captured and then killed. They were the news of the day. Also, outside reporters couldn't make it in, due to road blockage and the airport closing. Local stations had trouble getting reports together and getting them out. We were, in a real manner of speaking, cut off and ignored.

People in surrounding communities couldn't believe what had happened, due to the narrow focus of the storm's power. Nothing outside of the short but deadly path was touched. Folks were almost disbelieving of what we were telling them.

So, Memphis fell off the map. By supper time that day, we knew we were deep in it and looking at a long, hard haul. Most of the city was without power, including hospitals and police stations; repairing power lines was going to be a long-term job; same for clearing roads. Phone lines, too, were down all over and some towers had been ruined. We became a post-apocalyptic island of survivors swimming in the middle of a sea of normality. Our city had been blasted back into the first part of the twentieth century, stranded there, and left to fend for herself.

Memphians were stunned later to learn that America didn't know what had happened. We only rated a single paragraph inside the USA Today. The Washington Post got to us a week later. The New York Times didn't report us at all, to my knowledge. Evening news bumped us for the Husseins. We felt shunned and ignored. So when the northeast power outage happened later that year and the New York area lost power for a couple of days, Memphians were angry and amused at the wall-to-wall coverage. It wasn't summer up there, it was fall already. Only a couple of days? What wimps! We didn't get power to most of the city for almost a week and whole areas had to wait nearly three weeks. They got all the press and we were the red-headed step child.

It took Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen three days to show up and tour the damage, which a lot of folks here remember. Bredesen picked a day when City Mayor Willie Herenton had a campaign fund-raiser scheduled for Little Rock, Arkansas, so Herenton elected to skip the Governor for the fund-raiser. A lot of folks were very angry at the time with Herenton skipping town and that came back to bite him when it turned out that the firm hosting the fund-raiser got some special treatment in the City's billion-dollar bond deal with MLG&W. Herenton's now under Federal investigation for his role in all of that.

It also turns out that I know the city's first storm victim. A homeless guy who lives in the neighborhood, Lee Brown, was sleeping in a box across the street from the Ike's on Union (which, by the way, was destroyed by the storm while churches and other buildings around it survived). The burst of winds grabbed the refrigerator box he was sleeping in and swept it across the street and into Ike's! He ended up with a lot of bad cuts and some back injury, but another business owner happened to see the whole thing and called for an ambulance.

By lunch time that day, it was clear this was a disaster. I finally was able to close up the store and leave after catching some incoming employees wondering if we would open or not. Back home, of course there was no power. I walked around the block, and neighborhood, looking at the carnage. It was impressive. Everyone on the street was out, discussing what we knew and what we'd heard. Folks with cell phones were talking to family and friends, lining up a place to stay where there was still power. I later learned that hotels out in the county and across state and county lines filled up rapidly with the dispossessed.

As evening fell, eeriness set in. The city was preternaturally quiet. No planes, little traffic, at least initially. I was able to walk out into the middle of Union Avenue in evening rush hour and just stand there, not seeing any cars. You could hear sirens from police and ambulance all the time in the distance.

And it was dark. Unbelievably dark. I saw stars in such number and mass as you only see well out in the county, it was that dark. You could see the Milky Way. Standing in the heart of Midtown Memphis, you could see the Milky Way.

It was too humid to stay indoors, so everyone on the street was outside on stoops, stairways, porches up and down the block. We talked, shared food that had to be eaten before it melted or spoiled. An Asian family across the street set up a cookfire in front of their building. You could hear every conversation on the street, it was that quiet.

Foot traffic streamed in and out of the street, folks trying to find some store where they could find beer or snack foods, mostly. The surprising thing was the amount of auto traffic as night set in. I couldn't believe the number of folks out driving around to look at the wreckage. Even though there were no lights on Union, except for the Methodist Hospital sign up on the top of the hill west of us, traffic flowed along anyway. Every once in a while, you could hear the fender bender. We marvelled at the curiousity, and stupidity, of people.

Our street was blocked by stout oak trees on both ends, but people kept turning into the street as though things were normal. We watched and waited for some fool to smack into one of the oaks, and though it was close a time or two, no luck. But the tourism trade was a real surprise.

Mosquitos were the worst of it. They bit and bit, attacked over and over all night. It was unrelenting. Because we needed to open windows to cool our apartments, everyone had stories and bumps to show the next day.

I finally went in just before midnight. I'd tried to interest the folks on the street with looking at the Milky Way, which many had likely never seen in their lives, but there were few takers. I still regret that today, as it was both beautiful and scary. It was something that could only be revealed by the city being so hammered down.

I listened to WREC again. They announced that they were switching to their Nashville affiliate after midnight so they could work on their tower or something. There was something really frightening about listening to far-off Nashville, where the story of our trauma didn't always rate a mention in the news breaks, on a battery-powered AM radio in a powerless apartment in a devastated city. It was at that moment when the enormity of our plight finally settled on me, like waking up to realise you really are stranded on that desert isle with a shattered ship.

My poor cat Bennie deserves a mention. When I first got home that morning she was firmly hidden in her "storm hole" under the kitchen counter. It was some time before she came out, and gingerly at that! That evening, she seemed to sense the strangeness as she mostly stayed inside, or near the front door. Her eyes stayed wide and her ears and whiskers were always at full extension. That night, she slept on the bed with me.

Next morning, I took a cool shower and dressed for work. I carefully checked the frozen stuff, which was nearly salvageable still, and all the refrigerated stuff was still fine. But it was obvious we wouldn't get power anytime soon, so I started making plans to toss the frozen goods. The boss came in and we discussed what to do. She'd heard from our supervisor about plans to transfer food items to the stores in our chain that still had power. The assistant showed up, we tossed out all the spoiled food we found and washed dishes for a while. Then we closed up and went home.

Well, I lucked out. Power came back on later that afternoon! It turns out that most of my street is on the same power circuit as St. Peter's Nursing Home. But not my job. It was two more days before we got power back there. I still went in the mornings to check on things and hang out for a few hours, though. And got paid for all of it. Whee!

So, after learning that most of our frozen and refrigerated goods had been moved earlier on the fourth day, I had to go back and return it all to the freezers that evening when power came back. Turns out most of the stuff had spoiled or melted too much to use anyway. When we finally opened again, we got slammed by folks who needed to eat but didn't have power yet. We did records sales, with a reduced crew.

For the rest of that week, Memphis slowly climbed out of the wreckage. I found that WREC radio was mostly taking a "top down" approach to news. They were reporting offical word from city and government agencies, or taking news from their WPTY television affiliate. It was repetitive and not really helpful, to be honest.

Over on black-operated WDIA, it was a very different story. They had taken a "bottom up" attitude, opening their phone lines to callers. All day long, they fielded news of where to find generators and who was price gouging, where to find ice and water and fans, reminders to check the elderly and infirm, reports of working gas stations, etc. It was community radio of the best sort. It was community survival radio. Almost a week after storm day, they found out about a ten-floor retirement building on Camilla that still didn't have power, where the residents were forced to walk the stairs and spend the day outside in the heat and swelter, and spread the word. They were truly heroes of Memphis for their tireless work in collecting and spreading important information.

The city slowly got back on its feet. Memphis was functioning with some normalcy within about three days, and by the next week was generally working again with some large pockets still hurting, like a patient out of bed and on crutches, but still wobbly. It became something of a game to figure out where power was going to come back, and when it would happen. Jealousy and complaining quickly reappeared, which is always a sign of returning health.

The Commercial Appeal started to run a map after a few days, showing which parts of town were still without power. It ended up taking nearly three weeks to get most of the city restored, though the bulk of power was restored after a week. It was amazing to hear the number of people fussing on the radio about still being out of power, only a few days or a week after the storm, and calling MLG&W every name under the sun. People can be so short-sighted and selfish sometimes. But they also brought some trouble on themselves when they turned away offers of help from utilities and teams from outside the city; a lot of folks blew up over that, thinking that the pace of recovery was being delayed. The community uproar over MLG&W's perceived failure to quickly handle the power outage eventually led to the firing of the utility President, Herman Morris, a few months later.

The tree damage took many months to clear. Some dead oak parts laid on our street until the Spring of the next year. One guy at the end of the block just left his fallen oak where it lay and let Nature reclaim it on her own schedule. You can still see the trunk stump and root bundle with a thin coating of dirt and weeds today, across from Sekisui, laid open to the sky.

Hurricane Elvis, as the storm was quickly dubbed, left a mark on the city. You can still find tree and building damage all over the place, a year later. Ike's on Union is still closed. City disaster awareness plans have been re-evaluated. People are more aware of storm cells now; television weather teams are more likely to jump to wall-to-wall coverage during strong storms.

But by and large, we've returned to all the old patterns. Politics is worse than ever here. Racial tensions flared up during recovery -- some folks claimed that "white neighborhoods" got power before "black" areas -- and haven't improved much as they've cooled. The storm is still remembered and talked about, everyone has their stories, but the wind-knocked-out-of-sails feeling has passed.

WPTY, ABC 24, is doing a television special on the storm Thursday night at 7PM. I'm looking forward to it, as I didn't get to see some of the storm onset and immediate aftermath footage. Some of the other news programs will be doing retrospectives during their programming.

I can still recall my feelings of wonder that first night. It was very much like so many of those end-of-the-world movies, lying in bed in the middle of a dead city worrying about how we'd make our way back. Would we make our way back? Pitch dark, deathly quiet, huge shadowed blocks on the horizon from darkened buildings, no planes overhead, tinny radio alternating between normal programming and news of the devastation, only the occasional car and siren telling you that there was still a world out there. It was truthfully one of the spookiest feelings I've known.

No comments: