After the Flood

We made the national news for good reasons and bad. Now where does Memphis go from here

Amie Vanderford

There has never been a pair of months like this April and May in Memphis. The Mississippi River rose to its highest level in 74 years. The Memphis Grizzlies made a deep run into the NBA Playoffs. And the president of the United States, Barack Obama, gave the graduation speech for Booker T. Washington High School.

Each of those stories attracted national and international media attention to Memphis. The spirit of Memphis — the grit and grind in sportswriter-speak — was rightly celebrated. Government officials dealt calmly and effectively with the 100-year flood, and volunteers helped the unfortunate victims. More than 18,000 fans stood and cheered for their team — after it lost a game, no less. And an inner-city school with a proud tradition won a national contest to bring the president to town.

But the inevitable aftermath of spring will not be so upbeat.

Flood Recovery: The flood did not kill anyone, and was remarkably benign compared to the tornadoes that struck Alabama and Tennessee two weeks earlier, killing nearly 400 people. But the damage to public and private property will be substantial if the river stays above flood stage into June, as forecasters are predicting as I write this. No one has even ventured a dollar estimate so far.

The damage to wildlife and wildlife habitat could also be significant. Pictures of dead deer are beginning to show up in news reports, and there will be more of them as wildlife officials and reporters begin to venture out beyond the flooded residential areas and the downtown riverfront.

Tom Lee Park and Green Belt Park both flooded. That’s not unusual for the latter, but Tom Lee Park will take the better part of the summer to get back in shape. The Sunset Symphony this year will be a casualty, and the Memphis in May barbecue contest could find a friendly, reliable, and available permanent home at the Mid-South Fairgrounds. At the northern end of Tom Lee Park, Beale Street Landing, already behind schedule, will be stalled even longer.

The only thing certain about disaster recovery is that the national media won’t be around to watch it.

Grizzlies Fever: No downside here, unless the University of Memphis Tigers find themselves losing fans to the NBA next winter. The Grizzlies became everything their boosters hoped they would be. Kudos all around. But if pro sports championships were city savers, then Detroit would not be what it is. This year happens to be an election year for the city mayor and members of the Memphis City Council. Running as “pro-Grizzlies” is not going to cut it when people are worried about crime, jobs, and taxes.

Turning Around City Schools: Speaking of grit and grind, the students, staff, alumni, and fans of Booker T. Washington High School showed plenty of that in winning a contest to bring Obama to Memphis. Beneath the hype there is a story of solid achievement, highlighted by a graduation rate that went from 60 percent to 81 percent in a year.

Is BTW, then, a model for other MCS high schools? Possibly in some ways, but probably not on a large scale. BTW has 549 students, making it one of the smallest high schools in the system. It is about one-fourth the size of White Station, Cordova, and Whitehaven high schools. Memphis, with the highest property taxes in the state and an outstanding overdue bill from MCS for 2008, simply cannot afford to downsize high schools to 550 students and operate the additional buildings that would require.

On the contrary, the system, as Superintendent Kriner Cash has acknowledged, must close some under-capacity schools, but that issue was overshadowed by, first, the consolidation story and, second, the flood. It will be back.

Another thing that makes BTW unusual is that its classes are segregated by gender in some grades. The school board has not explored the issue and there does not appear to be any groundswell for a gender-segregated movement.

Finally, BTW’s students reportedly outpaced the state average by either 24 or 27 percentage points. The Tennessee Report Card, however, does not show such gains. Again, if they are happening at one city high school, then by all means, MCS officials should be praising the teachers and their methods to the rafters and duplicating their work at other schools.

But the lack of such exceptional gains at other schools, many of which have teachers, students, and principals working just as hard, indicates that special factors are at work and no easy solutions to be had.

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