photograph by Justin Fox Burks
Ten years ago this month — on the morning of July 22, 2003, to be exact — the massive violent windstorm later known locally as “Hurricane Elvis” swooped unexpectedly across the Mississippi River, causing wide-ranging destruction throughout Memphis and Shelby County and the surrounding area. At its peak intensity, the storm — a “derecho” in strict weather lingo — yielded winds of 108 miles per hour, close to the 111 mph threshold for a Category 3 hurricane.
Some 300,000 homes, a full 70 percent of those in Shelby County, were left without utilities, many for as long as two weeks. Power lines were down, streets were impassable, homes were destroyed, and several deaths occurred. The economic damage was incalculable, but easily ran into the tens of millions.
And yet A C Wharton, then in his first year as Shelby County mayor and now, a decade later, the mayor of Memphis itself, said the following day that he was “feeling a bit lonely, because it seems that from a national perspective [Hurricane Elvis] never happened.” As Wharton noted at the time, “We suffered a ‘dry-land hurricane’ . . . yet we see on the national news over in Galveston, they got more coverage on a hurricane that never did occur.”
True. The outside world deigned not to notice, the national media paid no heed. In triumph or adversity, ours is a city used to being ignored and has grown fatalistic about — or even acquiescent to — such a status.
When Memphis’ NBA team stomped on the favored San Antonio Spurs in round one of the 2011 playoffs, the sages of ESPN’s Sports Reporters show ignored this feat and delivered instead a eulogy for the departed Spurs. When the upstart Grizzlies reached the Western Conference championship round this year against the selfsame Spurs, the show’s substitute host rooted outright for the Texas team’s victory over Cinderella.
There’s more. The folks who produce the excellent infomercials for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, one of Memphis’ — and humanity’s — glories, acknowledge that it is official policy to omit any reference to the city that serves as home to that renowned institution. The late Rodney Dangerfield had nothing on us.
And yet we persevere. And yet we shine.
How do we know? Because, blues-borne though we are, discerning individuals and institutions see the gleam, feel the pulse, bask in the charm, and respond to the rhythms — all world-class — that lurk beneath all the adversity and under-estimation (much of the latter self-inflicted). There always have been such cognoscenti; there always will be.
As one example, the venerable National Geographic magazine recently listed Memphis, along with such sites as Marseilles, Ravenna, Thessoloniki, Valparaíso, and Kyoto, among its “must-see places” for 2013. Beale Street, Graceland, the Stax Museum and Academy, barbecue, the Greenline, Grisham: all these and more are cited as aspects of the city’s aura.
And in late May, there was Mitch Landrieu, the celebrated mayor of one of the world’s most celebrated cities, New Orleans. Landrieu was in our city as the first recipient of “A Summons to Memphis,” an event which takes its name from the Pulitizer Prize-winning novel by our late native son Peter Taylor, and sponsored by this magazine, now an annual feature on our city’s calendar (see pages 18-19). “A Summons to Memphis” is the brainchild of Ward Archer, president of Contemporary Media, Inc., our parent organization. Year after year, illustrious visitors will be invited here to share their visions about the elements that go into the making of the character, spirit, and essence of a city.
As the inaugural invitee, Mayor Landrieu delivered. Touching all the bases that the Geographic had and touting such others as the indigenous music, the Peabody ducks, the disproportionate number of Fortune 500 companies located here, and the great grace of the Mississippi River, a treasure shared with his own city, Landrieu also dispensed good advice for the future, based on the resurrection of New Orleans from 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, a catastrophe far worse than that of Hurricane Elvis.
To a luncheon audience of movers and shakers at The Peabody, Landrieu likened Memphis and New Orleans as twin “Deep South” cities constrained by history, geography, and demographics to the eternal task of reconfiguring and restoring themselves. City-building, he told us, means discovering your assets, letting them mix and thrive symbiotically with each other, and, most importantly, working across racial, geographic, and economic lines: “If you leave anybody behind, they will be behind.”
Mayor Landrieu’s New Orleans has been able to revive and re-invent itself after Katrina, to the point of becoming, in the estimation of Forbes magazine, the “Number One Place to Do Business in America.” Amid all its present travails and a decade after Hurricane Elvis, a symbolically apt if far lesser calamity, Memphis can surely take inspiration from The Crescent City and summon itself to a prosperous future in which nobody and nothing, except our famous self-doubt, is left behind.
Jackson Baker is the politics editor of the Memphis Flyer and a contributing editor of Memphis magazine.