The first line of “Blue Yodel #1,” by one of the pioneers of country music, Jimmie Rodgers, goes, “T for Texas, T for Tennessee.”
The pairing of the two states is appropriate. There’s long been a kinship between the pair, dating to the 1846 Mexican War. When the United States called for 2,800 Tennesseans to volunteer for battle, 30,000 signed up, cementing the “Volunteer State” nickname.
Adding to the kinship are the two legendary Tennesseans who decamped for Texas, becoming part of the fabric of the Lone Star State as well. Tennessee Congressman Davy Crockett died at the siege of the Alamo in 1836, while former Tennessee Gov. Sam Houston went on to serve as the first president of the Republic of Texas.
In the last week, there’s been another more painful similarity.
Americans have been both deluged and shocked with images and reports coming out of Texas. A winter storm that socked in a huge swath of the South hit Texas particularly hard: Pipes have frozen and Texans in several cities have been without power and water for nearly a week.
But I’m betting few people west of Memphis and east of Jackson, Tenn., realize residents of our state’s largest city are in similar straits, as there’s been little news coverage.
On Thursday, Memphis Light, Gas and Water (MLGW) issued warnings to city residents to boil water before using it to cook or brush teeth. The frigid temperatures that accompanied inches of snow damaged water pipes and created the possibility of bacterial contamination.
Acquaintances reported hearing on emergency scanners that ambulances and firetrucks became stuck on icy streets.
By Sunday, there was little improvement. Shelves of grocery stores were stripped bare not only of water but also of milk. MLGW gave away thousands of bottles of water to residents, who must still boil water — and conserve what water they have — through Monday. Memphis residents who could get their cars out of the muck reported driving as far as 50 miles away to get jugs of water.
You know, it’s inconvenient to be moved from a dorm or drive for water, but the people who really suffer are those who don’t have those abilities — the Memphians who rely on public transit, the elderly Memphians who live alone, the ones for whom a college dorm would be a luxury, much less a hotel.
Memphis is not only the state’s largest city, it’s also a majority minority city, which means the residential makeup is predominantly Black. To extrapolate further, Black workers are still paid less than white workers in equivalent jobs and home ownership rates in Memphis, at 46.5%, lag behind the national average, which is 63.9%.
What this means is a city with a low tax base and underpaid workers who are now suffering similarly to our Texas brethren. And Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, while not at Ted Cruz-level apathy, has been pretty quiet: there have been no tweets from his account in days, when he tweeted about city council members giving out water. Friday, in his weekly newsletter, he wrote three paragraphs about the local disaster and spent one of those thanking Gov. Bill Lee, the Tennessee Department of Transportation and other local agencies for their assistance.
Strickland did declare a state of emergency Tuesday, which should open up some state resources. But the man whose political philosophy has been “brilliant at the basics” of government has shown no brilliance over the last week and the basics are breaking down. Memphis is suffering and Strickland hasn’t so much as appeared at a photo opportunity handing out water, as Cruz did in Texas.
As one Memphian said in an email to the Lookout Sunday, “I love this city and its people but there is a certain substandard that is accepted as normal.”
Memphis deserves much better — better infrastructure and better leadership. This is one instance in which a connection to Texas is in no way enviable.