The sign said it all. Welcome to Memphis!
We were in Frayser, just outside the city, filming homes that had been inundated by flood water up to their roofs.
There was no one around – hadn’t been for days apparently – ever since the mighty Mississippi began hitting record levels.
The man in charge of coping with the disaster, Bob Nations of the Shelby County Office of Emergency Preparedness, told us the problem is not so much the Mississippi but its many tributaries:
“These tributaries for about a week now have not been able to dump their water into the Mississippi River and that’s what you see backing up here in Shelby County.”
Patrick Casey has worked in a nearby liquor store for more than 20 years. He and his colleagues spent the day moving stock to higher shelves.
“This is an incredible flood but I think we’ll be OK, it’s just a matter of time before it goes down. We’ll get in there to clean up and take care of the neighbourhood.”
Sergeants Derek and James, two Shelby County Sheriff Deputies, took us out in their amphibious vehicle to see the high water first hand.
It was eerily quiet floating so close to the roofs of people’s homes. High water from the Loosahatchie River, one of the tributaries of the Mississippi north of Memphis, had wrecked a mobile home park we floated over.
The waters rose slowly and everyone got out alive but the people here had lost virtually everything.
Fears of looting
Sergeant Mills was there to stop them losing anymore than they already have.
“We’re out here patrolling property to stop people looting and also we have sightseers. We don’t want them falling in the water and drowning. It’s hard to get emergency vehicles in here, we’re just out patrolling ’til the water goes down.”
Around 450 people have been living in 10 shelters like the one we visited at the Hope Presbyterian Church on the edge of Memphis.
A displaced flood victim, Minerva Zuniga, told us:
“My husband took me and my kid out of the house and said we were not coming back here because of the flood and as soon as we were safe he tried to go back to get our stuff but he wasn’t allowed in … so we’ve lost most of our property.”
Families get three square meals a day at the shelters, counselling and access to free supplies like clothes, baby toys and the internet.
Scott Milhollen from the Hope Church explained:
“Many of the families, the working spouse, often times the husband, is working during the day – we see them checkout at six or seven o’clock in the morning and we see them again at night for dinner all the time.”
And the shelter’s staff is gearing up for the long haul. The Mississippi and its many tributaries are not expected to return to levels normally seen at this time of the year for many days.
Pastor Rufus Smith said:
“This is projected to be a marathon, not a sprint because the water was so slow to rise in the flood. The prediction is that it’s going to take longer, or as long to recede, so we’re in this for up to two months … if that’s what it takes.”
Wall of water
“Here comes the pig in a python”, as the governor of the state of Mississippi put it recently. He was referring to the way the wall of water from excessive rain and snow melt is making it’s way down North America’s longest river.
On Railway Alley, just outside Vicksburg, Mississippi, we saw Ashley Johnson getting into her friend James’ boat.
He’d offered to row her over to see the home she shares with her mom – now full of water.
“I just want to see how high it is, I’m pretty sure it’s pretty high from looking at the houses you can see from the road it’s over most houses.”
Cornelius Johnson – a distant relation of Ashley’s – has lived here for sixty six years. He was refusing to leave his home in case thieves targeted his property.
“My daughter and my wife are going to move but I’m going to stay here because of the looting … man they went into two of those houses up there yesterday.”
Cornelius also worried about numerous reports of snakes being driven from the woods by the advancing water … “if I take off”, he said, “you’ll know I’ve seen one.”
Meanwhile, when Ashley came back from viewing her house she showed me photos on her camera phone. The water had reached the windows but like so many people we’ve met in the flood zone she was optimistic.
“I know the Lord is going to be with us so everything is going to be fine.”
Half a kilometre down the road Bernard’s family had decided it’s time for him to leave.
Well into his sixties he’s recovering from heart surgery.
His brother William Jefferson blamed the authorities for doing too little to build up the levees that hold the river water back since the last big flood in the 1970s.
“Everybody I guess just sits around until it happens and then everybody goes running all haywire, you know, trying to correct it and you cannot correct this after it’s happening.”
The rising Mississippi and its tributaries are affecting people who live in low-lying areas like Railway Alley north of Vicksburg – poor communities, where people live without insurance, and where by American standards they have nothing.
Now they’re about to lose even that.