Memphis Emergency Official's Plea: Please Don't Go Near The River

May 9, 2011
Originally published on May 10, 2011 12:33 pm

While folks in Memphis anxiously watch and wait as the Mississippi River rises and near-historic flooding continues, the local emergency planning director says he's worried about people who are venturing out to see the display of nature's force.

"We're very concerned about that," Bob Nations, Shelby County's director of preparedness told All Things Considered host Melissa Block this afternoon. "The Mississippi is mighty, it's wicked ... and right now it's in a rage."

With the undercurrent "very strong," he added, "this is a dangerous river." Still, he said, families are heading out to see the flooding. Some are letting small children get near the water. And that, Nations says, is not wise.

Nations said the river should crest by early Tuesday, but that it will be many weeks — or longer — before the water's gone and the cleanup is finished.

Much more from his conversation with Melissa is due on today's broadcast. We'll add the as-aired version of the interview to the top of this post later. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts the show.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Memphis is bracing for the flood. The National Weather Service says the Mississippi River will swell to 48 feet later this evening, just below the record set in 1937. And downstream communities throughout the south are preparing.

BLOCK: First though to Memphis, authorities there are going door to door to encourage people in low-lying areas to evacuate immediacy. Earlier today, I spoke with Bob Nations. He's director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness in Shelby County, which includes Memphis. And he gave us the lay of the land.

BOB NATIONS: Memphis is built on the banks of the Mississippi River, if you will. And so, the river is actually west of Memphis and our other communities. And if you look on from downtown and you're looking west, you're seeing Arkansas. So it does not run through what's considered the City of Memphis.

BLOCK: What are you telling people in the areas that are looking to be the worst hit?

NATIONS: Right now, they're backing up west to east. And so, we're actually monitoring our tributaries, while we watch what the Mississippi River does.

BLOCK: Are there a lot of people, Mr. Nations, who refuse to leave their homes even though they may be in harms way?

NATIONS: Well, we do encourage them to vacate when we are giving them that notice. We also understand it is a decision that they have to make. But we do make them aware that if they stay too long, it may be very difficult for us to come back in and actually rescue them or help them evacuate.

BLOCK: You have temporary shelters set up?

NATIONS: We have shelters set up. Three of them are already populated and we have a total of 11 on standby if that need arises.

BLOCK: What sort of capacity do those shelters have?

NATIONS: We try to keep our shelters at around 150 residents. We will go up to 175 as long as that bigger shelter can accommodate that. But we are not in favor of large shelters. And that works very well for us.

BLOCK: How long will you be dealing with the Mississippi at such a high stage?

NATIONS: A lot of damage - this is going to be a kind of a, if you will, a putrefied environment. Basically, a dangerous environment both in some health concerns and we'll have a lot of people working in the clean-up. We already are getting more reports, for example, of snakes. So, that's just one menace that will be dealt with. But we still got a long way to go with this.

BLOCK: I've seen a lot of photographs of people taking photographs of the flood. Is that something of concern to you? This river is flowing really, really fast.

NATIONS: It's a very real concern. Yesterday, families were out, many hundreds if not a thousand people on the river front and small children playing on the river bank and we're very concerned about that. The Mississippi is mighty, it's wicked. Its' all of the things we've heard historically about it. And right now, it's in a rage. And so, we're very concerned that although you look on the surface at some of these waters, it looks very smooth, sometimes glassy. The undercurrent is very, very strong. This is a dangerous river.

BLOCK: Okay, Bob Nations, thanks so much for talking to us. Really appreciate it.

NATIONS: All right, thank you.

BLOCK: Bob Nations is the director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness in Shelby County, Tennessee, that includes Memphis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.