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Storm in Memphis
by Hugh Frank Smith

[Editor’s note: This story was first published in The Memphis Commercial Appeal and is reprinted here with permission.]

Since many Memphis families escape to cooler places for vacation during the steamy months of summer, my daughter Sunde, her four daughters and I decided to try the mountains of North Carolina for 10 days. It turned out to be a timely trip.

On the third morning after we arrived at "High Cotton," the house we had rented in Cashiers, Sunde just happened to turn on The Weather Channel to see if the rain outside would soon end so she could play tennis. The anchors were reporting that a severe storm was hitting Memphis at that very moment and that damage was widespread. She could see from radar that it had passed Germantown and was headed straight for her farm in Fayette County.

It was about 7:00 a.m. in Memphis, so we called home immediately. Our employee, Mrs. Mary Watson, said everything had suddenly become very, very dark outside, that Germantown sirens were still going off and the strong winds had toppled trees and broken and blown limbs everywhere. Mary added that our dogs Miss Lizzie and Sailor were terrified.

We tried to call back a little later but there was no answer. The storm had apparently cut off all power and phone service. I was hoping Mary could find all the candles, flashlights and our old Alabama oil lamps she would need to use for the night.

A little later my daughter Melanie called to give us more information. She had one phone she could use that didn't require electricity to recharge it but trees had fallen all over their power lines too. She had sat in her car listening to the storm reports on the radio. Melanie said she wouldn't be going anywhere because not only their driveway but the street they live on was totally blocked with huge trees littered in every direction as far as she could see.

A phone call home later in the day gave us a better perspective of the power of this storm and the devastation it bestowed on Memphis and the surrounding areas.

We heard that three fourths of the city had power outages, the Memphis International Airport was closed, and the amount of damage to homes, buildings and cars was incredible. There was such extensive tree damage everywhere that many sections of town were unrecognizable .

Sunde and I soon realized that the rest of the country had no idea about the Memphis storm. We did not receive one phone call or E-mail on our laptop computer from friends who would normally check on us after such a disaster. I bought four newspapers daily, including the New York Times, and not one printed a line about the Memphis storm. We watched all the news channels. None mentioned Memphis. They all ignored an unprecedented disaster in one of America's major cities -- home of the blues, Elvis, Fed X, Auto Zone and St. Jude, to name a few.

It was troubling and worrisome being so far from home, family and friends with so many questions and so little news. I knew that our horses at the barn would receive daily care because two barn employees live on my farm and could walk over (IF the barn was still standing) to feed and water the horses. I knew Mary would feed and water the hens in my fox-proof yard and house and my geese just graze on grass. But what about horses and other animals fastened in stalls in other barns and boarding facilities if their caretakers couldn't reach them because of blocked roads?.

Phone calls later revealed that neither my house nor my barn was damaged, that my tenant house was only slightly damaged but that a small barn in the pasture collapsed. Sunde also had minimal damage at her Moscow farm, but the little town of Moscow was devastated. Our pastures and woods with many 100-year-old trees had survived with very few losses. We had been fortunate. I was most relieved to hear that miraculously few people had been injured or killed due to fallen trees and snapped power lines.

I could certainly sympathize with my Germantown and Memphis friends who were experiencing so many inconveniences indefinitely. I surely enjoy the luxuries of modern living, although I grew up on an Alabama farm with no electricity, no air conditioning of course, no indoor plumbing, an outdoor toilet and a well for water. We sat outside after supper to try to catch a little breeze before going to bed and sweating all night. We got along fine and I thought that was the way it was supposed to be not only for then but for always. You don't realize what you are missing if you have never had such comforts!

Melanie was amused when I told her, "While you all are sweltering from the heat with no air-conditioning, it is so cold up here that I have on two warm jackets and a blanket wrapped around me. No central heat here, but we do have lots of seasoned oak stacked on the porch for fires in the large stone fireplace." I didn't get much sympathy, I might add.

Just before we planned to leave North Carolina, Melanie phoned us. "There is no need for you to rush home. The men can't refinish the hardwood floors you planned to have done while you were gone. There has been no power for their machines so all your bedroom furniture is still in the middle of the living room." The girls were thrilled that we needed to add on two extra days to our vacation.

It was of course good and once again timely news for me when we returned to Germantown from North Carolina on July 31 to find power restored at my home, but it saddened us to learn that seven people were reported to have died so far as result of the storm. Trees can be replanted, homes and buildings rebuilt, structural damage repaired, but for grieving families their loved ones who died can never be replaced.


Hugh Frank Smith is a beloved Memphis area journalist. He lives on a farm near Germantown, Tennessee.

Readers may contact him at HFS mailbox

For more Hugh Frank Smith stories at USADS, click:
If You Hang A Gourd, They’ll Come
Deep South Holiday Travel
Tribute To My Sister


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