Chelsea Ave. floodwalls protect city from rising waters

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - A project from the 1940's is now protecting a neighborhood from flood waters.

These murals do more than just brighten up North Memphis. They're painted on a flood wall that runs parallel to Chelsea Avenue and the Wolf River.

When the water gets too high the city installs floodgates, heavy wooden panels tied with steel, and sandbags all the way across sections of Chelsea Avenue.

It's an old technology that still protects Memphis from rising water in the modern day.

Built in the 1940's by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, the wall is part of a levee system that protects Memphis from rising flood water.

The Chelsea flood wall protects thousands of people in North Memphis from the Wolf River, which is higher than usual just like the Mississippi River.

Workers at North Memphis businesses that flooded in 2011 are keeping a close eye on Wolf River.

"Before you could see a bank on the lake and now you can't see it," Midtown Auto Parts employee Jennifer Taylor said. "And the parks are flooded too. The other day I took a picture, barricaded three feet high. Now it's up and over them."

The salvage yard was underwater in 2011 when the Mississippi River reached 48 feet. The crest this time should be about 40 feet.

"I didn't know that," says James Tate.  "I never paid attention to it."

Like most North Memphis residents, Tate just thought the wall was a spot where graffiti artists did their thing.

A Paint Memphis event transformed a long stretch, nearly half a mile, of the ugly concrete wall into a brightly colored mural.  But it's a mural with a purpose.

"There are times when we have a lot of flooding going on," Shelby County Historian Jimmy Ogle said. "This flood wall was built in the 1940's by the Army Corp of Engineers. It's here based on experience from the 19th and 20th centuries, and now it's here in the 21st Century."

The wall protects hundreds of homes and businesses in North Memphis when the Mississippi and Wolf Rivers go over their banks.

"This wall is about seven feet high," Ogle said. "It takes a lot of water to get over it."

The flood wall and its gates were used during the historic 48-foot Mississippi River flood of 2011.

Areas behind the wall, to the south, stayed dry.  The business where Mike Nichols works, a salvage yard that backs up to the Wolf River, did not.

"At 48 feet, that crane you see there, was underwater," Nichols said while motioning to the yard.  "And back here [the salvage yard], it all flooded.  It totally flooded back here."

Now, it's happening again.  As the Mississippi River rises, it pushes the Wolf River back and higher into low lying parts of Memphis.

"The other day I took a picture and the barricades were three feet high," Taylor said. "Now, the water is already up and over the barricades."

The National Weather Service at Memphis predicts the Mississippi River will raise up at least another foot before cresting Friday at 39.5 feet.

"When you build in a floodplain, you flood," Ogle said.

Ogle said 39.5 feet isn't enough to top the Chelsea flood wall, but it's more than enough to flood places now bracing for the worst.

"It'll still come up and hit our scale house and our scales," Nichols said. "We have to do what we have to do to protect our property."

There are similar floodwall systems along the Nonconnah and in downtown Memphis near the Bass Pro Pyramid.

At last check, no floodgates had been installed and no sandbags were needed.

If the Mississippi does hit 39.5 feet, this would become a Top 10 historic flood for Memphis.

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