While television reporters delight in doing stand-ups while wading through water, the truth is, only a tiny percentage of the city of Memphis has been affected by flooding. But with images of the swollen Mississippi River driving tourists away from Beale Street, the city’s famed party strip is dry and far too sober.
“It’s been killing business,” laments Elliot Schwab, whose family started A. Schwab’s souvenir shop on Beale Street in 1876. “It’s the media that’s causing the problems. They show that one corner of Beale that’s underwater [at Riverside Drive], and suddenly everyone thinks we’re swimming with the fishes. I closed early yesterday, things were so bad.”
Schwab like other store proprietors on Beale Street has been getting dozens of phone calls from customers, suppliers and even friends across the country as the dramatic images of the Mississippi River have been transmitted all over the U.S. The Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau has been inundated with hundreds of queries daily from folks with trips to Tennessee planned, worried that their vacation destination is underwater. “Given the volume, we’re concerned about the folks we’re not hearing from,” says Regena Bearden, the bureau’s vice president. “For all those who called, how many didn’t bother?”
None of the city’s landmark attractions Graceland, the Civil Rights Museum, Sun Studios, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music were ever in danger of flooding. Much of the city sits atop bluffs hence its nickname, Bluff City and all of Beale Street’s blues clubs and jazz bars are more than 60 ft. above the river, even at its highest mark . Beale does dead-end into Riverside at the bottom of the bluff, but the only thing actually underwater is a park along the river.
Local businesses fret that the same thing that happened to New Orleans’ French Quarter which was largely unaffected by Katrina but catastrophically lost business as tourism to the city halted in the storm’s wake could happen to them. “Definitely, the images being seen on the media could have a much more disastrous effect on Memphis than the actual water,” says Kelly Earnest, who does marketing for the historic Peabody Hotel, which received 350 calls on Tuesday, May 10, from would-be visitors concerned about the flooding, including 35 outright cancellations. “We’re not so worried about the cancellations as we are about the assumptions people are making folks who are just deciding not to book a trip at all given the images,” she adds. President Obama is traveling to Memphis to deliver the commencement address at Booker T. Washington High School next week, and at least one local tourism official is hoping the Commander in Chief will help spread the word that the city is open for business. “We would love the President to visit the White House of Rock and Roll,” says Kevin Kerns, a spokesman for Graceland, “and show the world that we’re on dry land.”
There are some genuine flood-related tourism casualties. The amusement park on Mud Island is mostly underwater. And the nine casinos in Tunica, a Memphis suburb, were closed because of flooding. The park at the foot of Beale Street was supposed to host the annual Memphis in May barbecue contest this weekend, but that was moved inland because of the flooding. Most of Memphis’ hotels remain sold out, but Beale Street proprietors worry that eventgoers might miss the city’s charms since they’re being bussed out to Tiger Park, a couple of miles away. John Musselman, 61, has been a street vendor on Beale all his life. On Tuesday he was hawking cold water to tourists along the Mississippi near the bottom of the famed street. “Business would’ve been better if the BBQ contest hadn’t been moved,” he says. “But there’s more local traffic than normal, so that helps ease things a bit.”
Some of the loss of business has been offset by hordes of locals curious about the once-in-a-century flood especially for the restaurants and bars. But not everyone benefits. “I saw people yesterday that I haven’t seen downtown in 20, 25 years,” says Leo “Tater Red” Allred, owner of Tater Red’s Lucky Mojos souvenir shop on Beale Street. “But locals don’t buy stuff the way tourists do.”
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