Flooding on the Rise, Midsouth Faces Costs of Climate Change

Jun 2, 2021

Pastor John Jones shows a newspaper article about the 2011 flooding of his church, Bethesda Word of Life Christian Center, near the Wolf River in north Memphis.
Credit Richard Banks

Waters are rising. Not just sea levels, but inland, on rivers and in communities far from any body of water. Climate change, increased development, and aging infrastructure are the main drivers behind flooding in the Midsouth, and it’s expected to get worse. Contributor Richard Banks looks at how local governments are preparing for what many expect will be an even wetter, possibly more calamitous future.


Pastor John Jones got the call at about 5 o’clock in the morning. It was from his son back home in Memphis. “He said, ‘Dad there’s water coming from the river,’” recalls Jones. “’It’s made it to the church.’”

It was late April 2011 and the swollen river, about a quarter mile from the church, was the Wolf. Along with other area rivers, it was overflowing due to abnormally heavy rains that had fallen in the Midsouth over a period of weeks.

Normally, such high water on the Wolf would fairly quickly empty into the Mississippi. The levels on the Big Muddy, though, were already nearing record highs, due to heavy rains and snow melt upstream. High water met high water, causing waters to back up and rise even more.

“I caught the first flight I could,” Jones says, who was on a mission trip in New Mexico. “Got back home at about nine that night and by the time I made it to the church, the water was up to my knees.”

The church, Bethesda Word of Life Christian Center on Orchi Street in north Memphis, had been his life’s work. Worried about the church’s condition, Jones went to investigate. He parked his car nearby, grabbed the building keys and a flashlight and slogged a couple hundred feet through the flood waters.

Once inside, he placed a few of the church’s more valuable items on top of pews and in the baptismal pool, which, ironically, was dry and located high off the floor behind the rostrum. He prayed everything would be OK. 

“I was thinking maybe, in turn, and maybe it's going to just go down, subside.” But, he says, “it just kept coming and kept rising, kept rising, kept rising.”

Eventually, says Jones, the water was about five feet deep. “I'm not exaggerating, I tried to walk down here across that parking lot. And I got just, not even midway, [and the] water was coming to my chin.

“We had garbage cans float down the street,” he continues. “Matter of fact, I saw snakes and catfish swimming down Orchi Street.”

All told, the flood waters remained in the church and in the surrounding Nutbush neighborhood for 25 days. Jones says his electricity was off for six months. The cost of the repairs totaled more than $200,000 on the church and almost $60,000 for the house next door where his son and his family were living.

“Everything was destroyed,” he says. “It was just devastating. You know? I mean, I tell you this, I just can't even describe it.”

Help came, though, and lots of it. Jones says that he, his son, and many of their neighbors were able to make the repairs with the help of donations and volunteers who came from across the country.

“We had people that come from Oklahoma and, and up in Philadelphia, 30 at a time … busloads came here. Bellevue Baptist was the first one on the scene there. They stuck with us from start to finish till we got back up.”

Holding his hand up in the air, in a sign of praise, Jones says, “We were just blessed, man.”

Dual Threat

Flooding on the Mississippi River is itself nothing unusual. It typically rises and falls with the seasons.

Yet, the size and frequency of flooding on the river are increasingly defying norms. The 2011 flood, which reached 47.8 feet on the Memphis gauge was less than a foot shy of breaking the record set in 1937.

Declared a federal disaster, the flood caused more than $2 billion in damages along the waterway. Thousands of residents had to evacuate and spend months in shelters. In Shelby County alone, some 1,300 homes and 400 business were affected, from Millington to Southwest Memphis.

Since then, the data suggests a trend. The Mississippi crested above the flood stage of 34 feet at the Memphis gauge for four consecutive years, from 2016 to 2019. And the 2019 event became the longest known flood on record for the lower Mississippi River.

But river waters are only part of the concern.

Flash floods are also on the rise, both in frequency and intensity. According to a report co-published by Shelby County government, the average annual frequency of flash floods in the Midsouth has nearly doubled since 1996.

Warmer and Wetter

A view of Mud Island River Park during the 2011 flood. Only the highest portions remained above the Mississippi.
Credit Christopher Blank/WKNO-FM

One of the main causes for flash flooding, as well as riverine flooding, is climate change. Here in the Midsouth, as well as the rest of the planet, we’re getting warmer.

“We've had some of our warmest years in Memphis over the past 20 years," says Andy Chuippi, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Memphis. 

The region is also getting wetter.

“Based on climate data, the numbers—the cold hard numbers—do support that rainfall has increased,” Chuippi says, pointing to new data from the National Weather Service, which show the Memphis area has seen an increase of almost four inches per year, since 1981.

And he notes that we’re not just seeing more rainfall over the course of a year. Climate change can also cause intense bursts of rainfall that dump lots of water in a short amount of time.

"Warmer air can hold more moisture," he says. "So, that means there'll be more rain or water vapor in the clouds available to be rained out.”

A report from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine says warmer air then leads to “increased atmospheric moisture that can increase the frequency of heavy rainfall and snowfall events.”

Such an increase helps explain the doubling of flash foods here. Like the one that swamped a small slice of Germantown on June 7, 2019.

The 10,000-Year Flood

Beginning a little before midnight and lasting until about 5 a.m., almost a foot of rain fell on the Memphis suburb. While other areas south of Germantown also experienced some flooding, including Olive Branch, Miss., the main area hit in Shelby County was along Brachton Avenue, between Poplar and Dogwood.

The city’s stormwater drainage system was overwhelmed. More than 100 homes were flooded, some with several feet of water. The damage was in the millions.

Laura Yeargin has lived just off Brachton for more than 30 years and says her home had never flooded until that night. A FedEx retiree, she’d gone out with her daughter the night before and, afterward, went straight upstairs to bed.

“I actually slept through the thing,” she says. “My neighbors told me later in the morning, they had been trying to get in touch with me. They were banging on my door, but the way my house is situated … I guess I was in a deep sleep. I didn't hear [them].”

Finally, a text awoke her.

“So, I got up … and as I walked down the stairs … oh, it, the burst of emotion,” she recalls, tearing up as she describes the experience.

“It was awful, because I walked downstairs, and there was water still standing in my house," she adds. "As I was coming down the stairs, I'm just smelling this awful smell and this mud and muck, it was like a swamp.”

Yeargin says she had about 18 inches of water in her house. Other homes had more than three feet. Many residents blamed the local Germantown government for not adequately managing the stormwater system. City officials and civil engineering experts, however, pointed to the fact that the event was declared a  10,000-year flood,  meaning the chance of such an event happening in a given year is less than .01%.

The city’s stormwater system simply can’t handle that type of event, Germantown City Administrator Patrick Lawton told a group of residents at a hearing about a month after the flood. He said to redesign the system to drain that much water quickly enough would be “crazy expensive, in terms of the land that [we’d] have to take and the homes that [we’d] have to take” to make room for all that infrastructure.

Solutions

In addition to climate change, an overburdened and outdated stormwater system shares the blame for increased flooding. But to Lawton’s point, it’s highly unlikely that taxpayers would tolerate the cost—not to mention the disruption—of an update built to handle a flood the size of the one in Germantown.

“You're talking about billions of dollars in order to upgrade,” says Louie Lin, a professor at Christian Brothers University. He’s also the director of the Surface Water Institute, which works with local governments on stormwater issues.

“It’s a pretty big challenge,” says Lin, for us to expect that much money to be spent on upgrades.

“We don't have enough resources to improve every single [component] of infrastructure.”

He advocates for a sort of blended approach—one that includes some updates to the physical infrastructure, such as drainage pipes and retention ponds, as well as non-physical additions.

One non-physical infrastructure idea currently being discussed is a new type of emergency early warning system that would deliver alerts to more targeted areas. For instance, when a heavy rain event is forecasted, early responders could be alerted to check for flooding and only warn area residents to evacuate if conditions warrant it.

Another idea would help to reduce the amount of impervious surfaces that come with ever-increasing development. Roads and parking lots don’t allow rain to soak into the ground where it falls, but force runoff into already over-taxed drainage systems.

Instead, Lin says builders could be offered incentives to use low-impact designs that include more permeable surfaces. That would reduce runoff.

“This wouldn’t alone solve the problem,” says Lin, “But it would help.”

Resilience

Because of the damage wrought by the 2011 Mississippi River flood, Shelby County was one of 60 government entities eligible to apply for a Housing and Urban Development Resilience grant in 2014. Two years later, the county was one of 13 to receive such a grant.

According to John Zeanah, director of the Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development, the money is to be used for addressing unmet needs from the 2011 flood, such as restoration of damaged creek and river channels, as well as repairing flood control structures. “But,” he says, “we're also doing so in a way that we're becoming more resilient to future events.”

To that end, the $60 million in grant funds are also being used to buy out homes in flood plains and creating new floodways to divert water away from neighborhoods. The three largest projects are along Big Creek in Millington; along the Wolf River in north Memphis; and along Cyprus Creek in southwest Memphis.

In addition to alterations of landscape to better control floodwaters, the projects also include the creation of what Zeanah calls “day-to-day amenities that the community can enjoy.”

He says recreational facilities, such as walking trails and ball fields, are critical components of these projects, because “people have to rely on their neighbors. They have to lean on their neighbors and their social networks to get through hard times. So, building community, building up community, is a great way to also address the topic of resilience.”

In addition to flood mitigation from rivers, the grant helps the city and county deal with the growing threat of flash floods.

The Resilience Master Plan, which helps guide the use of the HUD grant, as well as additional, future funding, recommends best practices for urban development and construction of stormwater infrastructure. It also offers proposals for how to pay for updates.

These aren’t quick fixes, say those involved in planning. Yet, there is an urgency to getting them implemented because the root causes of riverine and flash flooding are not expected to magically disappear. Development will continue and, as we’ve seen with the recent closure of the Hernando De Soto Bridge, the condition of infrastructure in this country, including stormwater drainage, remains a concern.

“There's an impact that we see as a result of climate change that is anticipated to only worsen over time," Zenah says. "There are going to have to be some ways that we adapt to that."

We—meaning every community in the Midsouth—says Zeanah, need to invest in the upgrades. It’s not just a local issue, confined by city limits. As Zeanah says, “the flow of water doesn't respect political boundaries.”

Because of that, say Zeanah and other officials, we must find ways to work across regional governments and political parties to find solutions. And also, foot the bill.

Reporter Katie Riordan contributed to this story.