Speeches & Floor Statements
Posted on May 10, 2011
Mr. President, on Friday, I visited Memphis to see the flooding along the Mississippi River myself, to meet with volunteers who were helping, and to see the tremendously well coordinated efforts of emergency workers who are meeting and working every day, long into the evenings, and have been doing so for the last few weeks and will continue to do so for the next several weeks.
I want to make sure that as the Federal Government's role for helping arrives, we are doing everything we should be doing. It is quite a sight in Memphis. The Mississippi River today is 14 feet above flood stage. It is at a level that nearly equals the level in 1937. The river is normally a half mile wide. Today it is 3 miles wide. A great many people in Tennessee and Arkansas have been evacuated because their homes are flooded with water.
As we saw a year ago in the Tennessee floods, which stretched from Nashville to Memphis, and as I saw last Monday in Hamilton County near Chattanooga, Tennesseans know how to respond to this kind of tragedy. They are doing it again by helping one another and helping to clean up rather than complaining and looting. It is an impressive sight. Bob Nations, who is the director of the Shelby County Emergency Management Agency, presides over daily meetings of maybe 50 or 60 people from a variety of volunteer and governmental organizations, who are carefully coordinated to deal with everything from watching the levees, to looking for sand boils, to helping people evacuate, to dealing with utilities that may be threatened by flooding. He is doing a tremendous job.
COL Vernie Reichling, commander of the Memphis District Corps of Engineers, was there on Friday. He has had a tough couple of weeks. He was the one who had to blow up a levee in Missouri which hurt families in that area but saved towns, whole towns that are down river along the Mississippi River from irreparable damage, in northwest Tennessee and also in Missouri. He was there providing us with the latest information. Overall the Corps' work has been exemplary. So far none of the levees around Memphis has been breached, and it appears none will be breached, despite the high water.
The National Weather Service, both State and local officials have been an important part of the efforts. The University of Memphis has contributed daily maps that will predict where the water will go, which have proved to be fairly accurate, which is enormously helpful to volunteers and others as they find a way to help people evacuate when they need to be evacuated, or before they need to be evacuated.
I visited with volunteers who were filling sandbags near the Pyramid. These included off-duty military personnel from the Navy base nearby. These included people from land that is going to stay dry in other parts of Shelby County. They knew someone needed to help. I traveled to Mud Island where the flood waters were continuing to rise. Officials predict as many as 3,000 properties and 6 schools may be affected by the flooding. One of the most impressive stories is that of Hope Presbyterian Church and its pastor, Dr. Craig Strickland. The church has organized up to 13 shelters, each of which could hold 150 to 200 individuals. Two of them were filled when I was there on Friday. More of them are filling up. All of this is being done without any cost to the government, without any cost to the individuals who are being sheltered there. It is all being provided by the churches and synagogues of Memphis. Reverend Strickland and Hope Presbyterian Church deserve enormous credit for the role they are playing, along with others, in Shelby County.
The Federal Government, through the efforts of the Corps, is leading the fight. This is the largest flood in the history of the Mississippi River and Tributaries project. The Mississippi is the third largest watershed. The problem is it received 600 percent more rainfall than it normally does in a span of 2 weeks. The Corps says it came in all the wrong places. Over 4 million people are protected by the comprehensive Mississippi River and Tributaries Project. It is being tested in ways that it never has before. But the system so far is performing as designed. The Corps has made some tough choices that I talked about earlier. It is going to continue to need to make tough choices as the water moves south.
The Memphis District has been fighting the flood since the 24th day of April, relying on 500 people working 24 hours a day around the clock. The Federal Government, through FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is also helping State and local officials evacuate those in harm's way in advance of the floodwaters.
Governor Haslam of Tennessee requested, and our entire delegation has supported, our State's request for emergency evacuation assistance to help move residents in Dyer, Lake, Shelby, and Stewart Counties to higher ground.
The President responded quickly, and we thank him for that. Over the weekend, the congressional delegation also supported Governor Haslam's request for Federal assistance to help victims in 15 counties recover from the flood and severe storms that began impacting our State on April 19.
Actually this is a different sort of request. The first was evacuations; this is to help those recover. The record rainfall and flooding has only added to the devastation caused by the storms. Last night I learned the President has approved Tennessee's request to make individual and public assistance available to families in the hardest hit areas.
I would say to the Tennesseans who are affected by this, now that the President has approved opportunities for individual assistance, I hope they will take advantage of this. There is a telephone number to call. It is 1-800-621-FEMA. That is 1-800-621-3362. Unfortunately, we have had some experience with this telephone number in Tennessee in the last year. The floods that came exactly a year ago, which hit counties from Nashville to Memphis, produced enormous devastation, $2 billion alone in Davidson County. What we found with FEMA, once the President had granted the assistance, that Tennesseans who called that telephone number got a quick response, usually had an inspector there within a few days, and in most cases where there was damage, received a check of up to $30,000 within a few days. We hope that happens again, although we understand there is terrible devastation in hundreds of counties right now around the country, especially in Alabama and the eastern part of Tennessee. But I want to make sure that residents and neighbors in Tennessee know that the FEMA number, 1-800-621-FEMA, is available now to be called.
The first thing they will do is ask for your ZIP code. After that, they will have a chance to provide help. The most important thing that Tennesseans can do in preparation for that is to document the loss.
This flood will impact our State for weeks. The river only crested last night, the second highest flood stage ever recorded. It will take days for the waters to recede. Only then will we know the true extent of the damage. The volunteers and the emergency crews and the church shelters will be open for a long time after today.
I am proud of the Tennesseans who are responding, from the Corps of Engineers' personnel, to the Hope Presbyterian Church shelters, to the professionals with Mr. Nations. It is an admirable sight.
Senator Corker and I and our entire delegation are working together to make sure that we do all we can to expedite Federal help in response to this historic disaster that has occurred in the western part of our State.
I ask unanimous consent that two letters I am passing to the desk be printed in the Congressional Record immediately following my remarks. They are the two letters our delegation has sent to the President making a request for a declaration for disaster assistance.