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01 Oct 14 10:09

Floods, earthquakes and tornadoes form a large part of the urban resilience discussion. I've experienced two of these.

(Catch me on a good day and I'll tell you about the tornado. It was surreal.)

But another type of weather event happened 20 years ago in Memphis, my hometown, that put urban resilience front and center for me: The Memphis Ice Storm of '94. The storm actually hit a large swath of the southeastern US, but we Memphians have laid claim to it.

If you've ever been to Memphis, a few things probably stand out: our love of barbecue, our love of music...and our love of green.

Trees.

We have a lot of green trees.

What we don't have, or at least didn't back at that time, was a clue about how trees plus an ice storm could cripple a major US distribution center (Interstates 40 and 55 and the Mississippi River are just three main routes that go through Memphis).

On February 11, 1994, an ice storm hit the Bluff City. The ice covered the trees. Their limbs broke under the weight. Then the limbs took down power lines as they fell.

Everything closed down, even government agencies.

By the time the ice melted over 400,000 people were without power, some for more than two weeks. My mom, dad and I were three of those. It got pretty darned dark at night. And the temps dropped to below freezing. I'd never experienced that before: no heat...no light...no nothing. The first night Î was scared. Hearing snap, crackle and pop during the middle of night can get to you. After the second, third, etc, I was just darned tired.

No one saw the ice storm, or the aftermath, coming. “It was just that bad because I wasn’t prepared for it and I don’t think anybody was. All of a sudden power posts, the light street posts were falling on the ground and branches were falling out of the trees,” Walter Washington told Memphis CBS affiliate WREG-TV in February this year during the 20th-anniversary reflection.

Another person said that the popping of the branches "sounded like war zone." Recovery took weeks, even after power had been restored.

Perhaps things have changed for the better over the last two decades. Shelby County (which Memphis is in) now has an "Office of Preparedness."  According to the site, the Office assists "in building an enhanced and sustainable capacity to prevent, protect, respond to and recover from all-hazards threats. These threats and eventualities can be natural or man-made." There's also apparently the Tennessee Urban Area Security Initiative, which includes a number of cities and counties in the Tennessee-Mississippi-Arkansas tri-state area. I'm having a hard time finding any information on that one though.

If the Memphis Ice Storm of February 1994 had hit in 2014, what would have happened? Is it prepared for the next ice storm?

Is your town prepared for the next (insert whatever natural disaster event you'd like here)?

What do you think?

P.S. As I was writing this post, I happened upon this story from Memphis: Whitehaven Flood Response Complicated. Whitehaven is my subdivision. My family has experienced flooding too.

Seems I have another post to write.


Category: Climate/natural disasters: Disaster risk, Floods/storms, Resilience

Location: Memphis, TN, United States


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