Mississippi nears record-high level in Memphis

Published 11:20 am Monday, May 9, 2011

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The Mississippi rose toward the highest level ever in the river city, flooding pockets of low-lying neighborhoods and forcing more than 1,000 people from their homes, though the water was not threatening the music heartland’s most recognizable landmarks, from Graceland to Beale Street.

As residents waited for the river to reach its peak as early as Monday night — several inches short of the record mark set in 1937 — those downstream in Mississippi and Louisiana evacuated prisoners and diverted water from the river in an attempt to stave off catastrophic flooding that has a long history of hitting the area.

In Memphis, emergency officials were confident the levees would hold, but warned the river was still dangerous and unpredictable. However, there were no plans for more evacuations, and areas like Elvis Presley’s home were safe.

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“I want to say this: Graceland is safe. And we would charge hell with a water pistol to keep it that way and I’d be willing to lead the charge,” said Bob Nations Jr., director of the Shelby County Emergency Management Agency.

Authorities spent the weekend knocking on doors to tell a couple hundred more people that they should abandon their homes before they are swamped by waters. And officials said they had stepped up patrols in evacuated areas to prevent looting.

“We face a serious event, yes we do. We’re not diminishing that,” Nations said. “We’re gonna live through this for another few weeks and it’s gonna be a nasty one and there are gonna be some dangerous environments to deal with.”

On the horizon, rain was forecast for later, that could bring the danger of flash flooding.

Forecasters said it looks like the river was starting to level out and could crest as soon as Monday night, at or near 48 feet (14.63 meters), just shy of the 48.7-foot mark set in 1937. Forecasters had previously predicted the crest would come as late as Wednesday.

“I’m so glad it’s not going higher. And that’s what I can see from all the gauges,” said Gene Rench, a hydrologist with National Weather Service.

Memphis residents have been abandoning low-lying homes for days as the dangerously surging river. The swollen river has already swamped houses in Memphis.

Flood waters were about a half-mile (800 meters) from the Beale Street’s world-famous nightspots, which are on higher ground.

The river already reached record levels in some areas upstream, thanks to heavy rains and snowmelt. It spared Kentucky and northwest Tennessee any catastrophic flooding and no deaths have been reported there, but some low lying towns and farmland along the banks of the river have been inundated.

There’s so much water in the Mississippi that the tributaries that feed into it are also backed up, creating some of the worst flood problems so far. And there’s tension farther south in the Mississippi Delta and Louisiana, where the river could create a slow-developing disaster.

Authorities in Louisiana stepped up their preparations by opening floodgates at a spillway northwest of New Orleans to take pressure off levees in populated areas. Inmates were also being moved from a prison near Baton Rouge.

Downriver in Louisiana, the Army Corps of Engineers began opening the first floodgates at the Bonnet Carre spillway about 30 miles northwest of New Orleans. Workers pulled restraining devices off 28 of the spillway’s 350 gates, and the corps said it will monitor river levels before deciding to open more.

It’s the 10th time the spillway has opened since the structure was completed in 1931.

The corps also has asked for permission to open the key Morganza spillway north of Baton Rouge. Officials warned residents that even if it were opened, residents could expect water 5 to 25 feet (1.5 to 7.5 meters) deep over parts of seven parishes. Some of Louisiana’s most valuable farmland is expected to be inundated.

Officials also began moving prisoners from the Angola state penitentiary, north of Baton Rouge. Fewer than 200 with medical problems were taken out on buses and vans, and more inmates inside the prison were being moved to less vulnerable buildings in the complex bordered on three sides by the Mississippi.

Engineers say it is unlikely any major metropolitan areas will be inundated as the water pushes downstream over the next week or two. Nonetheless, officials are cautious.

Since the flood of 1927, a disaster that killed hundreds, Congress has made protecting the cities on the lower Mississippi a priority, spending billions to fortify cities with floodwalls and carve out overflow basins and ponds — a departure from the “levees-only” strategy that led to the 1927 disaster.


Associated Press writer Michael Kunzelman contributed to this report from Norco, La.