Come Hell Or High Water, BBQ Contest Is On

The Mississippi River has reached 48 feet near Memphis, Tenn., flooding low-lying areas but sparing major parts of the city. Host Michel Martin speaks with Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, Jr. about how residents are coping with the flood and why the city is moving forward with the annual World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're going to start today by checking in on that severe weather in parts of the South. You'll remember last month there were those devastating tornados. This week the problem is flooding. In Memphis, Tennessee today, floodwaters from the Mississippi River are near record-breaking levels. Heavy rains and storms in late April have led to massive flooding in the Midwestern and Southern states. In a few minutes we'll check in with a reporter in Jackson, Mississippi.

But first, we go to Memphis, Tennessee, where Mayor AC Wharton is with us. He says the Mississippi River crested today, reaching 48 feet. Mr. Mayor, thanks so much for joining us. How are you holding up?

WHARTON: We're holding up well. It is getting a little weary. We have been preparing and giving warnings almost two weeks now. So that does begin to take a toll on you.

MARTIN: I understand that officials went door to door over the weekend telling people that the time had come to evacuate, but there is not a mandatory evacuation order. Do have that right? And if not, why not?

WHARTON: That is correct. We would only resort to mandatory evacuation if we saw immediate peril. And we really didn't have any cases of immediate peril in which the individuals refused to vacate their homes.

MARTIN: You know, we were talking about how preparing for a flood is different from preparing for other disasters like a hurricane, a tornado - happens fairly quickly. But a flood is one of those things that you know it's coming...

WHARTON: Right.

MARTIN: ...but you don't know how bad it's going to be. And is it hard to get people to take it seriously?

WHARTON: It is. Everybody assumes, well, I'll just keep watching it. It's not like there's some rushing wall of water that'll just come out of nowhere and catch us in the middle of the night. Some say, well, when it gets to my front step or if it gets on the front porch or if it gets in the living room, then we'll go ahead and get out of here. That poses a challenge because that all assumes that the road or street is going to hold up and you'll be able to get out.

But by and large, our residents have cooperated with us fully. They have listened to us. They have heeded our warnings. They have been ready to leave on a moment's notice.

MARTIN: And I was going to say, we've been seeing a lot of images, you know, in the papers and on the TV of areas that are underwater. In some of the pictures I've seen, the water is as high the second-story windows. Is it as bad as it looks? And is the damage widespread? Or is it fairly contained?

WHARTON: It's fairly contained. Now, obviously for the person who lived in that house it's horrible. So we don't downplay that. But in terms of widespread destruction of property, that simply is not the case. Memphis sits on a bluff that's 78 feet above the river. We are the highest city between Cairo, Illinois and Natchez, Mississippi. So we're on a bluff and that's what really helped us.

Where the major flooding is occurring is from Loosahatchee and the Wolf River, which also runs straight through the city. When you see the - most of the residents, the single-family homes, it is from the tributaries that run off the Mississippi. Now, the homes that you've seen along the Mississippi in an area called Harbor Town or Mud Island, those are the more expensive homes. And there's been some flooding there. But we also had flooding from the other two rivers in the interior of the city.

MARTIN: So what's the biggest problem for you?

WHARTON: The biggest problem now is going to be, first of all, cautioning folks that it is not over. Don't go running to water's edge. We don't know what's there. We don't know where banks have given in. We don't know where there may be sink holes, whatever. The snakes, reptiles that have fled the tributaries - got to be careful about that. Got to be careful that we don't have folks wading in water, in which they might pick up infections, 'cause there are a lot of folks wanting to play in the water, which is not safe. But again, the key thing is, folks, don't rush. We're not through this yet.

MARTIN: And finally, I wanted to ask about the, you know, the timing is pretty bad. I mean, you've got a lot of tourists, a lot of visitors in the city right now. A lot of people coming for the renowned Memphis in May Festival. This Thursday, as I understand it, the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest is slated to begin. Are you going to have to find a new venue?

WHARTON: We have done just that. Again, this is the resiliency of the folks of Memphis. We have moved it to a place we call Tiger Lane, which we just finished up roughly a year ago. It's a beautiful area on the fairgrounds, which is right in the middle of the city. We'll have shuttle buses there, plenty of parking. So only two participants were not able to make it. So it will be just as big and delicious as ever. And if anybody has a taste for barbecue, we invite them to come on down.

MARTIN: So you're still encouraging people to come.

WHARTON: Oh, absolutely. Unfortunately I've seen so many broadcasts which give the impression that we're closed. But Memphis is wide open. We're still doing boat tours on the Mississippi. You can still go out and see it. Graceland is wide open and rocking. Beale Street, they're still partying there after the Grizzlies games. So don't believe some of the things that you see.

MARTIN: So are you going to get some of that barbecue?

WHARTON: Oh, absolutely. As a matter of fact, I'm going to try to whet someone's appetite. Just think of a fresh bun that when you touch it with your finger your finger goes right in and it's just spicy and juicy and it gets all over your necktie and your shirt or whatever. That's what I want to go for.

MARTIN: You know, that's almost mean. Are you sending us up - are you sending some up here? It's almost mean.

WHARTON: I tell you what...

MARTIN: Hear you talking about it and...

WHARTON: Next time I come, I'll bring it.

MARTIN: All right. AC Wharton is the mayor of Memphis, Tennessee and he was kind enough to interrupt his busy schedule to talk to us about the situation there. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for joining us.

WHARTON: Listen, and again, invite all your listeners to come on down to Memphis.

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