Mapping a way forward to prepare the Mid-South for global warming-related weather disasters

As the effects of climate change begin to manifest themselves, communities across the globe are beginning to develop plans to brace themselves for the future.

The Mid-South is no different in this regard. A few months back, the Shelby County Office of Resilience started developing a master plan of their own to prepare for weather disasters. 

“It’s to protect property, life and the ability for our residents to bounce back from any sort of hazard or stress that could be placed upon the city," said Jared Darby, national disaster resilience planning manager with the Shelby County Office of Resilience.

"This plan is going to provide recommendations, further opportunities for research and funding sources. People need to be involved so they can make sure their community’s needs are being met when it comes to resilience to those kinds of stresses and shocks."

The Regional Resilience Plan will cover all of Shelby and DeSoto Counties, along with parts of Marshall and Fayette Counties. In addition to preparing for the future, the blueprint is to help the area recover from a series of storms that swept through the region in April of 2011.

The goals of the plan are to protect property, life and the ability for residents to bounce back after any sort of hazard or stress placed on the city.
Three weather systems left extensive damage to the area. Days of torrential rains swelled creeks and tributaries beyond their banks. Infrastructure was overwhelmed by the aftermath. Businesses and neighborhoods experienced significant flooding.

“There are still homes and businesses that have damage from it that have not fully recovered; the term the federal government uses is unmet recovery needs. The flood itself was a presidential disaster declaration, and the federal government determined Shelby County was the most affected in the state of Tennessee,” said Chris Horne, associate with Sasaki Design and project manager with the Mid-South Regional Resilience Plan.

In 2015, the U.S Dept. of Housing and Urban Development set aside $1 billion in funding to state and local governments still dealing with the impact of the disasters in 2011 to 2013. Applications were submitted to HUD’s National Disaster Resilience Competition, a program to promote innovative resilience projects so communities can better prepare for future events. In January 2016, Shelby County was awarded $60 million in federal funds for its Greenprint for Resilience project.

The resilience plan is being put together with the collaboration of experts in the field guided by the Sasaki team. Data has been collected over the past few months, and public meetings are scheduled to get community feedback and kick off the project publicly.

Three will be held initially, starting on Tuesday, January 30 and running through Thursday, February 1. They will be held at the Memphis Leadership Foundation, at 1548 Poplar Avenue; the Millington-Baker Community Center, at 7942 Church Street, in Millington; and at the Southaven Public Library, at 8554 Northwest Drive, respectively.  The workshops will run from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Forming a plan will take about a year.

“We want to reach folks in every direction we can because this is important and people need to have a voice as this is the citizens of Memphis and Shelby County’s plan. This is a big deal. We are only one of 13 jurisdictions in the country and we got fully funded,” said Darby.

Along with recovery and climate change, other natural disasters and events that could conceivably hit the area are considered.

“Flooding is at the forefront. It’s what is getting the most discussion, but there’s climate change, drought. When I say climate change, it’s becoming warmer, days over 95 to 100 degrees are growing longer. Our rain events tend to be more heavy and shorter in duration. There’s earthquakes, tornadoes, windstorm damage, and on and on," said Darby.

"How is our infrastructure impacted by these hazards, how are people impacted by these hazards, how are businesses impacted?” 

In January 2016, Shelby County was awarded $60M in federal funds to promote innovative resilience projects to help communities prepare to mitigate the effects from future storms, flooding and other events.

The Greenprint for Resilience project encompasses four resilience activities: Big Creek, Wolf River and South Cypress Creek and the resilience master plan. The three site-specific implementation projects are currently underway. These undertakings will soak up the bulk of the $60 million.

“The way the regional hydrology works the edge of the Mississippi is elevated on a bluff so Downtown Memphis is pretty insulated from direct flooding. It didn’t even flood it during 2011. The key issue with the flooding is the secondary tributary creeks and rivers,” said Horne, whose firm is the lead consultant on the South Cypress Creek project and sub-consultants on the Big Creek project.

When heavy rains come, the water rises and backs up into the tributaries. Low-lying communities along their paths are vulnerable.

“The three implementation projects are engineering and landscape architecture focused — where they are basically taking a segment of the river and literally intervening in some way like either changing the path or creating a berm or creating a new park to absorb water,” said Horne.

But the Regional Resilience Plan is a broad look across a wide region for planning purposes.

"We look at infrastructure vulnerabilities. We look at vulnerable communities. We are the bigger picture, figuring out where the vulnerabilities are long-term strategically, what are the big opportunities," said Horne.

Once the data collection and research is finished, the next phase of developing the master plan will be devoted to finding potential solutions. Design concepts will be vetted. Scenarios will also be run and the solutions tested for viability. The third and last phase will move into a final set of recommendations and a final plan will be submitted that has depth in terms of implementation, funding and identifying what people, agencies might own each recommendation.

"Most importantly, we want to solicit feedback from residents, from the public, from technical experts,” said Horne.

While Mid-South officials are preparing for a more precarious future, the area doesn’t face the consequences that others do. Models show coastline inundation, particularly along the east coast and Gulf of Mexico. Desertification will spread beyond the Southwest. Some areas in the Deep South will be unlivable without the constant hum of air conditioning. Other than adjusting to longer, hotter summers and shorter, warmer winters, managing and recovering from extreme weather events, like the 2011 flood, will likely be the region’s burden.

“Every region has its strength and weaknesses. I personally think the Mid-South is in a pretty good position. It has lots of great assets. Memphis is protected naturally by the bluff. The emergency management community is very impressive. Memphis is in a good position relative to its drinking water supply with its aquifer.

If managed correctly, the region is good to go for the future,” said Horne.

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Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.