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As River Crests, Shelby County Is Better Equipped To Handle Rising Waters

Snowmelt and rainfall in the North have caused the Mississippi River to rise recently, and it is expected to crest at Memphis this morning. Forecasters with the National Weather Service anticipate the river will reach 33.5 ft at its highest point. That’s more than ten feet below the crest of 2011 which flooded thousands of homes and businesses in the area.

In 2011, the Mississippi River touched Beale Street. Director of the Shelby County Office of Preparedness Bob Nations, Jr. said that’s not going to happen this year. “People … if they’re standing on Riverside Drive and Beale Street they’re going to look and they’ve seen that before, that’s not going to be a scary picture,” Nations said. “What we are seeing right now is fairly typical for our area.”

If the river should ever rise to record levels, or beyond, again, then Nations believes his office is better equipped to handle the situation because of five new gages installed along the river’s tributaries. “[After 2011] we just identified very quickly that we didn’t have eyes and ears on these tributaries. We had sticks in the ground that we would have to send, you know, a human to read to tell us what the water levels were,” Nations explained, “putting them in harm's way to get us a reading.”

The Mississippi River itself is monitored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but its tributaries are Nations’ concern. That means most Shelby County residents who live in a floodplain, rely on Nations to tell them if they need to evacuate. “We don’t have many people who live on the Mississippi River here, like they do farther South,” Nations explained, “but we have a lot of people who live along these tributaries.”

Nations promises the five new gages are “enhancing our capability tremendously.”

These days Nation can monitor every two-foot increase in the height of those feeder creeks remotely, and use GIS technology to predict which areas in the county will flood.

Nations believes the additional gages will be indispensable the next time the river reaches near record levels, but that won’t be this year. “I think we’ll get through [2013] with, you know, very minimal impact,” Nations said.

Even so, Nations advises that people avoid water sports and recreational activities along the Mississippi and its tributaries until the river’s crest is well past Memphis. “There’s a lot of debris in the river coming from the North,” Nations explained, “full trees, you’ll see some rooftops.”

During the flooding in 2011, Nations said his staff brought him “scary” reports of people out on the water in canoes and kayaks “and we even saw small children being put in the bank of the river during that time to just swim in the flood waters.”

“The water goes down in a week or so,” Nations said. “All of us who love water sports will be right back in it.”

I love living in Memphis, but I'm not from the city. I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I spent many hours at a highly tender age listening to NPR as my parents crisscrossed that city in their car, running errands. I don't amuse myself by musing about the purity of destiny, but I have seriously wondered how different my life would be if my parents preferred classic rock instead of Car Talk.