Image: Image of Mississippi River from space
This image, acquired on May 5, 2011, shows the substantially swollen Mississippi River, from north of Cairo to south of Memphis.
updated 5/11/2011 8:05:51 PM ET 2011-05-12T00:05:51

The deadly tornadoes and rainstorms that tore across the Midwest last month combined with melting snow have left the Mississippi River bursting at the seams. Amidst the evacuations and extensive flooding along the river, experts know records are being broken, but they say they won't know the full extent of the flood — such as how much water has actually breached the riverbanks — until things quiet down.

Some areas along the Mississippi River have seen 10 to 20 inches of rain during April, said Royce Fontenot, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service.

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While the river levels are currently reaching record levels, the extent of the damage won't be known until after the flooding stops, which could be well into June, Fontenot said. [Before and After: Images of the Mississippi River Floods]

"We don't know how much water has overflowed onto land from the Mississippi River," Fontenot told Life's Little Mysteries. "This is not something we can get in real time; we'll need to survey the area after the fact."

What we know
Although the size of the flooding is unknown, there are several indications of its severity.
The Mississippi River is currently flowing at 2 million cubic feet per second (609,600 cubic meters per second) in Memphis, which is comparable to a football field of water at a height of 44 ft (13.4 m) per second. Another way to look at it: If you were to stand at one point in the river, it would be as though 2 million basketballs of water were moving past you every second. [What Is to Blame for Mississippi River Floods?]

Before discharging into the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River joins with the Atchafalaya River in south central Louisiana. On an average day in May, these two rivers collectively flow into the Gulf at a rate of 750,000 cubic feet per second (228,600 cubic meters per second).

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Right now, flow rates of the Mississippi River in New Orleans (before joining the Atchafalaya River) are about 1.1 million cubic feet per second (335,280 cubic meters per second).

Water levels are also indicative of the severity of the flooding. For example, in Memphis, the average height of the river is 25.9 feet, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for the month of May. As of Wednesday, this height has increased to 47.69 feet and is expected to rise to about 48 feet.

River facts
About 2,350 miles long, the Mississippi river flows south from Lake Itasca in Minnesota and empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The river passes along the eastern border of Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana, and the western borders of Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi.

The entire Mississippi River basin drains 41 percent of the United States — parts of 30 states and also a small part of Canada. About 20 rivers feed into the Mississippi, including the Ohio, Illinois and Missouri rivers.

The Mississippi River is the fifth largest U.S. river by volume and on average holds 1.5 million to 5.2 million gallons of water. The water level of the river varies by location.

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Video: Satellite images show rising river's impact

  1. Closed captioning of: Satellite images show rising river's impact

    >>> goodefeening. we're in the midst of awful flooding along the mississippi river . the worst part is ahead, according to a lot of the experts. surging, unpredictable water flowing toward the mississippi delta now. the river is taking aim at one of the most poverty stricken parts of the country after laying waste to a big chunk of the gambling industry, hundreds of homes, and just about on its way through memphis , tennessee, and it's not too early to say new orleans and the surrounding region could be in flood trouble as this flows south on top of all the troubles we have had. we want to start with anne thompson in louisiana . good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, brian. louisianians are busy tonight, preparing for this historic flood which has already done so much damage upriver. as the mississippi river barrels south, satellite images reveal its relentless and destructive impact. this was memphis on april 21st before the flood, and this was memphis yesterday. much of the city underwater as the mississippi reclaims its territory. the damage here pegged at $320 million. the swamped casinos in tunica could lose up to $87 million just this month. one economist said the toll could reach $4 billion. up and down the raging river , people race against the clock, filling sandbacks in yazue, mississippi . crews built this temporary levee in the shadow of louisiana 's i-10 that crosses a river basin .

    >> it will be the back-up of the water trying to get out into the gulf. it backs up on us.

    >> that's if officials open the morganza spillway , a relief valve for the mississippi river but a potential disaster for part of southwestern mississippi . it could impact 13,000 buildings, 25,000 people, and 3 million acres of land. 2 1/2 acres belong to john mennard. he's paking up his home and heading for higher ground, leaving his home shattered for this big tough oil working. what is it like to think about losing your house.

    >> no words, no words. i built this myself.

    >> reporter: the river is already above 19 feet. the national weather service has marked a tell phone pole to show residents what could happen. if they open the spillway gates at 50%, so half are open, we're expecting the level to get to 29.

    >> john menard is resigned.

    >> mother nature is mother nature , and there's not much you can do about it, you know.

    >> reporter: few here are willing to take a chance on mother nature . even though the flood is not expecting to hit here until next week, today, we found nurses moving homebound patients out of harm's way.

    >> we have to talk about new orleans, a city which when you mention it, you think of katrina katrina, the oil spill . a city in recovery, continuing to shine, and what is it in for them and this flood.

    >> reporter: well, they're watching the river levels carefully, as you can imagine. city officials met with the army corps of enj noor nears today, and they decided if the rivers rise one more foot, they're going to have to close the floot gate, and that means closeing the port of new orleans . and that's bad news. anne thompson starting us off from louisiana . thanks as always.


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