Memphis economy braces for floods

@CNNMoney May 9, 2011: 2:14 PM ET
Memphis businesses are bracing themselves for a major flood as the Mississippi River keeps rising.

Memphis businesses are bracing themselves for a major flood as the Mississippi River keeps rising.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Memphis and its economy are bracing for its worst flood since the 1930s.

Hundreds of businesses are in the Mississippi River flood zone, according to city officials. But they say the downtown area, which is playing host to major tourist events, is expected to remain dry.

"The good news is that our forefathers chose the highest point that they could along the Mississippi to build the city," said John Moore, president and chief executive of the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce. "Because we're that city on the bluff, we're not in as bad a shape as some people think."

The Mississippi River rose to 47.8 feet Monday morning, according to the National Weather Service, easily surpassing the 34-foot flood stage and approaching the 48.7-foot record set in 1937.

The river is expected to crest Monday night, according to the forecast -- at around the same time that more than 17,000 fans will attend a National Basketball Association playoff game between the Memphis Grizzlies and the Oklahoma City Thunder downtown.

Paul Patterson, administrator of environmental engineering for the city, said that city employees and volunteers have been hard at work shoring up the concrete flood walls that run adjacent to the Mississippi. He said 27 of the 33 locks -- the engineered openings allowing access to the river - have been plugged with stop logs, which are similar to railroad ties, "to make the wall complete."

"You cannot have a catastrophic event like this without having an impact on the economy," said Patterson, noting that the preventative efforts put an added strain on city coffers.

But even though some streets near the river have been closed, tourist events downtown, such as the Memphis in May International Festival and the sold-out NBA game, will continue as scheduled, according to city officials.

The rising river forced the relocation of the festival's World Championship Barbecue, though the officials said this change was relatively minor. More importantly, Moore said that 678 businesses remain in the flood zone, and hundreds of families have relocated to shelters.

Storm insurance losses could reach $5 billion

"The areas that are flooded, and that will be flooded, are still of great concern," he said.

George Little, chief administrative officer for the city, said that due to extensive flood prevention work in recent decades, there's "virtually no impact to the core of downtown."

But he said that some small businesses away from downtown are already under water, and access to larger businesses, including the American Yeast Corp. and the Valero (VLO, Fortune 500) oil refinery, has been limited by rising waters.

American Yeast Chief Executive Gary Edwards said that his factory is located above the high water mark but the access road is flooded. The city built a temporary road, allowing his business to continue shipping, but on a limited basis, without the use of large trucks such as 18-wheelers.

"It's created a lot of disruption in terms of how we get raw materials in and out and we can only ship in very small quantities," he said. But even though the flood will take a bite out of profits, he said the city's cooperation in building the temporary road has allowed him to stay in business.

Moore said the chamber is working closely with flood zone businesses to help them weather the deluge. Also, he said that barge traffic on the river has been interrupted, and rising waters have caused some disruption to municipal infrastructure.

Since the river is still climbing, its impact on the city can't be measured yet. Moore said this has become a point of fascination for many tourists.

"All of these people in town are hanging out on the bluff because they want to sightsee the rising river," he said. To top of page

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