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System to ease flood danger in Memphis in works

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A year after the historic Memphis flood, emergency officials are teaming up with federal agencies to create a network of river gauges and weather stations in surrounding Shelby County to better monitor the Mississippi River tributaries that overflowed, forcing hundreds from their homes.

Shelby County Office of Preparedness director Bob Nations told The Associated Press that the new gauges and stations will provide real-time information about water heights, river activity and rainfall along the Wolf and Loosahatchie rivers and the Nonconnah Creek — three Mississippi River tributaries that caused much of the flooding in the Memphis area in April 2011.

Nations said the system also will include cameras that will show the current state of the tributaries. County officials have been meeting with the National Weather Service, the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Geological Survey to get the system up and running this year.

Nations said the system is a positive next step, helping county emergency officials and volunteers respond in the same safe, efficient manner that they did during last year's flood

"The focus is on, 'What will we do next time, and how will we do it?" Nations said Tuesday. "We try to keep that right in front of us."

The flood of 2011 saw the Mississippi fall about a foot short of the record crest of 48.7 feet set in 1937. The National Weather Service recently set the official crest of the flood at 48.03 feet on the Memphis gauge, slightly higher than the initial estimate of 47.8 feet.

Flood waters from the Mississippi River engulfed farms in West Tennessee and eastern Arkansas. But most of the flooding in Memphis and surrounding Shelby County came from the tributaries, which wind their way from eastern Tennessee and north Mississippi toward the Mississippi River.

In all, about 2,000 homes and businesses were affected by flood waters in Shelby County, but no deaths were reported. Almost $8 million was distributed to families that needed some sort of financial assistance from the federal government, Nations said.

Flood waters encroached on homes and businesses in low-lying areas, leading to evacuations of hundreds of mostly low-income residents in neighborhoods in north Memphis, south Memphis and the suburb of Millington. Water reached the roofs of some homes and forced road closings.

The flood forced the World Barbecue Championship, held in mid-May, to move from its traditional location at a park that lies along the Mississippi. But tourist attractions such as Graceland, Elvis Presley's longtime Memphis home, and Beale Street, the tourist drag known for blues music and barbecue, were not affected.

Damage control went into high gear after national TV news reporters stood in waist-high water as they reported on the flooding, making it appear that the situation was worse than it was. In all, only 20 percent of the county was affected by flooding, Nations said.

Nations delivered a memorable quote when asked if the flood was going to hit Graceland.

"I want to say this: Graceland is safe. And we would charge hell with a water pistol to keep it that way and I'd be willing to lead the charge," Nations said on May 9, 2011.

The tourist attractions may have been spared, but trailer parks were hit hard.

About 750 mobile homes were damaged or destroyed, Nations said. Residents of the parks fled rising waters in late April of last year, heading to shelters or staying with relatives. When they returned in late May, they were told that the parks would be closed and they could no longer live there.

Cleanup has been slow at the trailer parks, whose owners are responsible for the work and expense of removing unlivable mobile homes.

No cleanup activity is evident at Country View trailer park in northwest Memphis, now a veritable ghost town. There, trailers with broken windows and caved in roofs sit empty. Basketballs, toys and children's bicycles are littered near a main road, signs that families once made this place their home.

Removal of damaged trailers has begun at Memphis Mobile City in north Memphis. A regional executive for the company that owns Memphis Mobile City says that they want to rebuild.

"We have big plans for Memphis Mobile City," Gina Beasley said.

But the mobile home parks must raise the ground level and rebuild their utilities to make them safer.

Nations hopes that the new river gauges will help mitigate flood dangers in the future. He said the installation of the gauges and weather stations could be done in 60 days.

"It's long overdue," Nations said. "Building this capability is a very necessary, essential thing to do, for just the idea of public safety."