Rising floodwaters force relocation of Memphis barbecue festival

Tuesday, May 3, 2011 | 1:11 p.m. CDT
The Mississippi River is rising as seen Saturday in Memphis, Tenn., with Wolf River Harbor in foreground. The Mississippi continues rising toward its highest crest since 1937 this month, officials said. Rising floodwater along the Mississippi River has forced Memphis' signature barbecue contest to move from the riverbank.
Organizers of the Memphis in May International Festival announced on their website late Monday that the cooking competition May 12 to 14 has been moved from Tom Lee Park to the Memphis Fairgrounds.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Rising floodwater along the Mississippi River has forced Memphis' signature barbecue contest to move from the riverbank.

Tributaries in West Tennessee were backed up and flooding Monday due tobecause of heavy rains and the bulging Mississippi River, whose waters that lapped up on riverside parks near downtown Memphis. Fears of dangerous flooding have led Shelby County officials to call a civil emergency for its 920,000 residents.

Organizers of the Memphis in May International Festival announced on their website late Monday that the cooking competition May 12-14 has been moved from Tom Lee Park to the Memphis Fairgrounds.

"While we regret having to move away from the ambiance of the Mississippi River location, the safety of the event, our guests from around the world, and the competition that crowns the World Champion, are our priorities right now," said James L. Holt, president and CEO of Memphis in May.

Besides the Mississippi, the city is dealing with floodwater from the Wolf and Loosahatchie rivers.

The scenario is an eerie reminder of the situation one year ago, when 20 people died as record rainfalls caused flooding in Tennessee from the Memphis area to Nashville.

Gov. Bill Haslam was to visit northwest Tennessee on Tuesday to survey the situation. Farmland flooded last week after a small levee was intentionally breached to ease pressure on the swollen Mississippi and Obion rivers and save more densely populated areas.

"Every update is it's going to crest a foot higher than where it was before," Haslam told The Associated Press after touring fatal tornado damage in Green County on Wednesday. "And now they're saying up around Tiptonville it's going to crest a couple feet higher than even the levee they built in addition to the normal levee. Unfortunately we're pretty confident that there will be flooding up there. The question is how bad it will be."

He said the state is considering more evacuations and working to make sure flood prevention efforts are adequate.

"We talked with TEMA (Tenessee Emergency Management Agency) and asked them if there are enough people literally stuffing sandbags up there," Haslam said.

The Mississippi had been expected to crest at an unusually high 45 feet on May 10. But the river is now expected to crest at 48 feet on May 10, just inches lower than the record of 48.7 feet set in 1937, National Weather Service meteorologist Richard Okulski said Monday during a briefing at the Shelby County emergency operations center.

Part of the reason for the increase is that 2 to 7 inches have fallen since midnight Saturday, and another 2 to 4 inches are expected to fall by Tuesday night, Okulski said.

After the crest, the Mississippi is expected to stay near 48 feet for four to seven days.

"That's not good news," Okulski said.

Shelby County emergency management officials were working Monday to determine what the effect of the 3-foot jump would mean to residents. They are urging residents to be packed and ready to go in case they are asked to leave.

Okulski said the intentional breach of the Birds Point levee in Missouri will not significantly ease the danger of Mississippi River flooding in the Memphis area.

The persistent rain also has added to the levels of tributaries such as the Loosahatchie River, which was just 1 foot below its banks and rising in one part of eastern Shelby County. County officials have warned of water coming up though storm drains.

The county already has several roads that are flooded, and authorities already have evacuated two mobile home parks. Some residents ended up at Hope Presbyterian church, which had 175 people — mostly families — in its gym-turned-flood shelter Monday.

Single mother Olga Velazquez had red-rimmed, teary eyes as she walked through the drizzle toward the front door of the church on Monday. In one hand she held a black plastic bag with some belongings. In the other, she held the hand of one of her four children.

Velazquez says she was asked to leave her mobile home and she left behind most of her things, which were covered in dirty water.

"I have lost everything," she said in Spanish. "I don't know what I'm going to do next."

In Millington, a town of about 11,000 people 17 miles northeast of Memphis, authorities have asked people in low-lying homes to evacuate, but some have refused. About 200 people from a naval facility there already have been moved to hotels.

Officials have been warning for flooding for weeks, and Mayor Mark Luttrell has asked people not to panic while staying alert and monitoring news and weather reports.

"I believe our communities will make it through this safely," said Bob Nations, Jr. Shelby County's emergency management director.

The flooding danger stretches north to towns such as Dyersburg in Dyer County, where a levee was intentionally breached to ease pressure on rivers and miles of farmland were flooded. About 20 homes were evacuated.

Meanwhile in Nashville, hundreds of people gathered at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center on Monday to commemorate the one-year anniversary of deadly flooding that devastated the city last May.

In the aftermath of the flooding, 2,600 people were left homeless at least temporarily, and thousands evacuated. Homes were shoved off their foundation and cars were left submerged.

There were 10 flood-related deaths in Nashville. The names of those victims were read during part of Monday's program and a bell rang solemnly after each one.

"Each of us lost the false confidence that natural disasters are always somebody else's news story," Nashville Mayor Karl Dean said.


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