Two weeks ago Memphis was waking up to a disaster. The morning light – the only light many of us had – revealed the full damage of the storm that had swept through around 11pm the night before: trees and power lines down; cars and trucks crushed; homes damaged or partially buried. And no power.
Miraculously no one lost their lives. It barely registered a blip on any national news, but its surprise arrival would unleash its wrath with as much legend as Memphis’ other most-talked-about storms of the last twenty-five years, and would require more resources for clean-up and for restoring electricity than either of the storms of 1994 and 2003.
I wasn’t here for the ’94 Memphis ice storm nor Hurricane Elvis in ’03, but I had certainly heard about them. Hurricane Elvis in particular. Stories from Memphians about where they were, what they were doing, what their streets looked like. About how their neighborhoods reacted, and how they mobilized. This being my first Memphis storm, here’s what I saw.
The weather forecasts for the Saturday before Memorial Day were for a 40 to 60 percent chance of isolated thundershowers that wouldn’t be arriving until later that night. Like many, I hardly took notice. Most of Memphis was focused on enjoying Saturday barbecues, the final festivities of Memphis In May, the Summer Symphony at the Botanic Gardens out east, or they were out at the river’s edge at Tom Lee Park for the fireworks of 901Fest.
Sometime after 10pm the rains and the winds started, innocently, like any other Southern rainstorm. But the weather began to change – meteorologists were anxiously watching what most of us were oblivious to – and soon the blanket of clouds overhead began to bow and billow like those ominous cloud formations in movies like Poltergeist or in Close Encounters.
First came the lightning. And not just any ol’ lightning – these flashes were strobe-like. Sitting comfortably in my Midtown living room in front of the TV, I thought perhaps the neighbors across the street were having trouble with their porch lights. It was as though Raiford’s had moved the disco party into Midtown.
And then the thunder arrived, booming and rolling overhead every thirty seconds, rattling the windows, shaking the house. Our cats scurried down the hall, away from the front room, and hid under the bed. I may be a novice witness with regard to Southern storms, but even I could sense that this was different.
Typically, or so it seems, the weather beatings that hit Arkansas moving east just don’t make it to Memphis. As the common thinking – or myth-making – goes, our positioning along the Mississippi River on top of the fourth Chickasaw Bluff supposedly acts as a buffer, halting fiercer weather. In truth, storms rolling over the bean fields and the flood plains of rural eastern Arkansas hit a slight increase in temperatures from the heat-absorbed concrete of Downtown Memphis that in effect, deaden or divert most storms.
Most of the severe weather that moves east through Arkansas is split when it hits the river, southward toward Mississippi or north to the smaller towns just north of the city in west Tennessee. The storm systems that produce milder tornados or extreme wind and hail in Arkansas typically don’t scrape the buildings downtown – they hit Olive Branch down south or Millington up north.
But not this time.
As reported in the Memphis Flyer, it was later revealed that a “derecho,” a type of storm formed by a line of thunderstorms, had merged from northern Arkansas and the northeast – almost north-south parallel to the Mississippi River – and had reached their epoch right on top of the heart of Memphis. The strong downdrafts and lethal “straight-line” winds of the storm topped 100 mph near ground level. And according to the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma and the professor quoted by the Flyer – Earth Sciences Professor Dr. Dorian J. Burnette – these conditions produced a phenomenon known as “a microburst,” which confined the storm “to a small area of less than 2.5 miles.”
To learn about these phenomena is to learn how rare an event the evening of May 27 was. It wasn’t a hurricane. It wasn’t a tornado. It was something else.
With the strobe-light show continuing, I finally opened the door and took a look outside. The tops of the tall, hundred-year-old oak trees across the street and next door, four to six stories high, were being tossed about. Branches and leaves were bending and straining against the fierce winds. The booming and rolling thunder and the pouring rains continued.
This was kinda scary.
I closed the door, checked on the wife and sat back down. Inside the lights were flickering. More thunder. More flashes outside. And then, the inevitable. The lights went out.
The moment the electricity cuts out in a house is surreal. Especially at night. The sights and sounds we live with inside suddenly cease. All we hear is a loud silence, all we feel is an abrupt stillness. And after finding the flashlights and lighting a candle or two, there is another shift in our senses. Our attention from our now-dark indoor environment turns to the chaos outside, and we become almost spiritually connected to the neighborhood and the city outside our door.
What’s happening out there? Across the street? Down the block? Around the rest of Midtown? Around the rest of Memphis?
Up and down our street every house was dark. But across the street, the porch lights were still on. This must be isolated, I thought, and we will probably have power again once the storm passes, before we wake up.
Morning and daylight, with the help of post after post on social media, would reveal what had happened around town. Some were already posting in the wee small hours.
The full scope of the damage would unfold slowly, hour by hour on Sunday, when folks assessed their front and back yards or hopped in their cars and drove around their neighborhoods.
Memphis’ Public Works Division, which is responsible for city infrastructure maintenance, would report that hundreds of trees, most of them oak trees a hundred years old or more, were down everywhere. They blocked streets, were strewn across yards or lay between power poles, their massive trunks trapping electrical lines against sidewalks or the pavement.
Stop lights were out or blinking red from intersection to intersection. At Peabody and McLean a stoplight dangled dangerously by a few wires over the street and passing cars.
The hardest hit areas in Memphis appeared to be a long swath from north to south that included Frayser and parts of Raleigh, Whitehaven, and Midtown.
Numbers would unfold every few hours and day to day on FaceBook, on NextDoor, or through texts from neighbor to neighbor.
And when the tallies came in, it was reported that approximately 188,000 Memphis Light, Gas and Water customers were without power.
Neighbors gathered on front lawns, swapping stories. It woke me up. I slept through it. Did you see that tree on McLean? On Evergreen? On Peabody? On Harbert?
Those with trees lying in their front yards or across their street wondered what to do. I wonder if that generator in the garage still works? Or they began making phone calls, asking neighbors what they intended to do. Those with smashed automobiles or damaged homes began calling their insurance companies.
Others, their phone batteries dwindling into Low Power Modes, took to the road in search of electricity. At Otherlands Coffee Bar on Cooper, and at the Starbucks on Union and McLean, lines formed as early as 6:30am. Folks red-eyed from lack of sleep, desperate for coffee and a place to charge their phones – mostly souls whose homes or vehicles had escaped damaged – with nothing more to do but find a spot, read the Sunday paper and wait.
Are you without power?
Any word yet on when you’ll have it back?
Nope. We’re waiting on MLGW updates.
And as the hours ticked by without power, decisions were being made. The MLGW estimates coming in said that it would be up to a week – a week – before power could be fully restored in all areas. What do we do with all that food in the fridge? How hot is it going to get today? How many hours or days do you think we can tolerate without our air conditioning? How do we handle Tuesday when we have to go back to work?
First World Problems.
Because in some parts of the city the damage was more than just inconvenience. Some Memphians awoke to parts of tree trunks through their roofs and in their kitchens. Some had smashed house fronts that trapped them inside. Others had narrowly escaped death. One young couple was awakened with a tree, inches from their bodies in their bed, that left them with just enough room to squeeze into the hallway and out of the house.
And for those without renter’s or homeowner’s insurance, the situation was no mere inconvenience; it was life-altering. Instead of a few days of What do we do with the food in our freezer? it was Where are we going to live? How am I going to feed my family?
Memphis being Memphis, donations and Go-Fund-Me’s poured in and helped those in need. The Red Cross set up temporary shelters and assigned case workers to those in need of assistance. And neighbors helped neighbors. In our Central Gardens neighborhood, nearby Idlewild and Cooper-Young, neighbors banded together with extension cords and borrowed chainsaws, and salvaged their remaining ice, food, beer and other adult beverages, turning the Memorial Day weekend into outdoor use-it-or-lose-it cookouts.
Neighbors and businesses helped fellow neighbors and businesses.
Ben and Colleen Smith, who had been in the middle of renovating their Cooper-Young restaurant Tsunami, opened up their doors for friends in need of “ice, hot coffee, or a place to charge phones.” Central Garden’s Kathy Ferguson, whose block somehow never lost power, posted to Facebook that “We have power if anyone is in need of charging phones, some AC or anything!” When their Cooper Avenue eye- care and wear shop Eclectic Eye went days without power, co-owner Robbie Johnson Weinberg got help from a business out on Broad Avenue. “The amazing folks at City and State offered us space to pop up tomorrow,” she said on FaceBook.
And Stacey Greenberg, a representative of MLGW, took to FaceBook in fielding inquiry after inquiry and doing Herculean work in her role in managing requests.
Any updates on Avalon? Address please.
On Rembert? Address please.
Can I buy you a few drinks after this? Yes please!
What’s In A Name
All told The Storm would inflict Memphis with over 17 million dollars in damage, qualifying the city for federal aid dollars. A week after the storm Public Works would have cleaned up most of the debris, and MLGW would have repaired power lines and restored power to most residents.
Miraculously, there were no reports of injuries or deaths due to the fallen trees or the severed power lines. And though the damage was severe in isolated instances, most neighborhoods seemed to be spared greater destruction, as tree after tree fell as though directed across yards, into the streets, and away from homes.
But what to name it? 1994 had its Ice Storm. 2003 had its Hurricane Elvis. Folks on NextDoor and Facebook and in the Flyer had their ideas for Memphis in 2017: Memphis May-Hem; Hurricane Jerry Lee; Hurricane Lisa Maria, Hurricane Lawler or Hurricane 901.
But it was MLGW that may have captured it best, seemingly cornering the naming rights.
In the updates that followed the first few days, Memphis Light, Gas and Water began referring to the storm as the “Tom Lee Storm,” inspired perhaps by the indelible image of the destroyed obelisk at Tom Lee Park. The toppled monument to Tom Lee, the African American who saved 32 lives during the sinking of a steamboat in 1925, seemed a perfect metaphor as a sacrifice for the lives that did not perish during this historical, straight-line storm that marked the beginning of summer and left an indelible memory.
Mark Fleischer is the founder of StoryBoard Memphis. A storm of this magnitude was a Memphis first for him. Thanks to all those who lent their FaceBook pictures to this article.