In just five weeks during 2011, 16 inches of rain swamped Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee. The Mississippi River and many other waterways burst their banks. The result: three presidential disaster declarations and two billion dollars of damage in Shelby County alone.

Screenshot of Mississippi River flooding news coverage in 2011

Global warming may contribute to more extreme weather events like these, so communities are fortifying against the likely onslaught.

The extreme flooding made Shelby County eligible for the Natural Disaster Resilience Competition, a billion-dollar federal program designed to speed preparation and spark innovation.

For greater Memphis, limiting development in flood-prone areas is a key part of the plan. But making room for the rivers is not just about bracing for disaster, it’s also about improving quality of life.

Zeanah: “Doing so in a way that creates community benefits like a park or recreation area or a trail for people to enjoy.”

That’s John Zeanah of the Memphis-Shelby County Office of Sustainability. The county’s proposal includes a plan to greatly increase the region’s recreational trails. Shelby County is trying to show that communities can do more than hunker down – they can also become more livable as they prepare for climate change.

Reporting credit: ChavoBart Digital Media/Evan Lowenstein.
Photo: Aerial view of Mississippi River flooding in 2011 (ABC News video screenshot).

More Resources
Great Mississippi River Flood of Spring 2011
HUD Launches $1 Billion National Disaster Resilience Competition
National Disaster Resilience Competition Fact Sheet
Shelby County to Compete for $1 Billion in a Disaster Resilience Contest

Diana Madson contributed regularly to Yale Climate Connections from 2014 to 2021. She enjoys exploring U.S.-based stories about unexpected and innovative solutions to climate change. In addition to her...