As engineers blasted a third section of a Missouri levee in a bid to manage flooding along the Mississippi and other rivers, Memphis residents prepared Thursday for flooding there that could last through all of May.
The rising Mississippi River lapped over downtown Memphis streets as a wall of water threatened to unleash near-record flooding all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Water was also threatening Mud Island, a Memphis enclave that juts into the mighty Mississippi and pays homage to the Big Muddy with an elaborate scale model of the river, a museum about its history, and a paddlewheel steamboat that looks like something straight out of "Huckleberry Finn."
Homeowners there weighed whether to stay or go.
"I'm going to sleep thinking, 'I hope they don't evacuate the island and we wake up and we're the only ones here,'" said Emily Tabor, a first-year student at the University of Tennessee's College of Pharmacy in Memphis who lives on Mud Island.
The three-mile-long strip of land has about 1,500 homes and businesses and 6,000 mostly well-off residents, many of them living in gleaming, 20-year-old houses with wide river views and traditional Southern touches such as columns, porches and bay windows.
Tourists can take a tram or drive across a small bridge to visit Mud Island's park, amphitheater and a museum devoted to life on the Mississippi.
Emergency officials warned that residents may need to leave their homes as the river rises toward an expected crest next Wednesday of 48 feet — about 3 feet higher than on Thursday. The record in Memphis, 48.7 feet, was set in 1937.
The slow-motion nature of the flooding in the Memphis area could create even more problems when the water recedes.
"I'm looking for a lot of mud and sludge. This could be a very damaging event," Bob Nations, head of the county's preparedness office, was quoted by the Memphis Commercial Appeal as saying.
Water from the Wolf and Loosahatchie rivers also has seeped into the suburbs, and some mobile home parks were swamped.
On Thursday, the Mississippi spilled over a park and onto Riverside Drive in downtown Memphis. Water pooled at the lowest end of Beale Street, the most famous thoroughfare in the history of the blues, but it was about a half-mile from the street's popular restaurants, shops and bars and did not threaten any homes or businesses.
In north Memphis, Maria Flores spent her fourth day in a church shelter with her husband and three children. They had to flee their trailer in the low-lying working-class Memphis suburb of Millington when it was swamped by stinky, dirty water. They have no flood insurance, and sleeping in a room with 20 other people, including crying children, has proved difficult.
"We don't have money, we don't have anything," Flores said. "It's like a bad dream we can't wake up from. I just want this water to go away."
Emergency officials in Millington were "going door-to-door, asking people to leave," according to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.
Farther south, the Mississippi Delta was starting to flood, too. In Greenville, Miss., the yacht club was submerged and two floating casinos were closing down. In Rolling Fork, the birthplace of bluesman Muddy Waters, Highway 61 was expected to become impassable.
"It's weird," said Lakeysha Stamps, a waitress at the Highway 61 Cafe. "Here we are today and everything's fine. And tomorrow there could be all this water."
On Mud Island, meanwhile, the Mississippi engulfed a riverside park and bike path. At the private Maria Montessori School in the wealthy, 500-home Harbor Town section, several feet of light brown river water inundated the garden. Students and teachers built a sandbag wall to keep the water out of their classrooms.
"We've done our best to protect our building. This is very scary to me," principal Maria Cole said.
Russell Carter, who owns a pizza restaurant in Harbor Town, said he plans to stay with his wife and 9-month old daughter, mainly to protect his home and his business from the water and possible looters.
He said he is not too worried because he knows neighbors in the community he described as "Mayberry without Barney Fife" will be there to help if there's trouble. They are planning to hold a flood party Saturday.
"I've got too much invested," Carter said. "I'm not going to leave what I've worked for and what my family has worked for."
The Memphis area did get some good news Thursday — officials lowered the number of homes and businesses that could be affected from 5,300 to around 2,800.
Up and down Ol' Man River, from Illinois to Louisiana, thousands faced the same decision as high water kept on rolling down the Mississippi and its tributaries, threatening to swamp communities over the next week or two. The flooding is already breaking high-water records that have stood since the 1930s.
President Barack Obama on Wednesday declared parts of Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky disasters, making the states eligible for federal help with relief efforts. It does not cover individual assistance.
Elsewhere in the flood zone Thursday:
- In Kentucky, authorities closed 250 roads in 50 counties. The Coast Guard rescued at least 28 people, 12 cats, and three dogs from rising waters. About 3,800 residents have left their homes and barge traffic on the Ohio River and tributaries was closed. Canal locks were shut to help control flooding downstream on the Mississippi River.
- In Missouri, the Army Corps of Engineers blew a third hole in a levee to relieve pressure and prevent catastrophic flooding there and in Illinois and Kentucky. The Mississippi continued to rise in Caruthersville, where a high-mark set in 1937 was surpassed on Wednesday, but was generally going down elsewhere in the state. The water was expected to crest Sunday in Caruthersville at 49.5 feet, just a half-foot below the top of the floodwall protecting the community of 6,700.
- In Louisiana, National Guardsmen used sandbags to fortify levees in the northeast part of the state, and the state penitentiary stood ready to evacuate prisoners. Officials were planning to open a spillway in the southern part of the state to divert river water.
- In Arkansas, truckers tried to rearrange their routes to avoid a 23-mile stretch of Interstate 40, a major link between the East and West coasts, where the rising White River forced the closing of the westbound lanes. Drivers were forced to take a 120-mile detour toward Little Rock.
- In Mississippi, some residents of the historic Civil War town of Vicksburg were moving to higher ground to avoid the rising flood waters. "We are not going to stay here," said Vicksburg resident Harold Manner. "The families all around us are taking what they can and moving out of here, at least for now."
The Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for managing the system of levees and floodwalls along the Mississippi and other rivers in the area.
"The entire system is experiencing flooding and we will continue our fight downstream," said Major Gen. Michael Walsh, president of the Mississippi River Commission.
Tom Salem, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Memphis, said flooding is extreme this year in part because of drenching rain over the past two weeks. In some areas, Wednesday was the first day without rain since April 25.
"It's been a massive amount of rain for a long period of time. And we're still getting snowmelt from Montana," Salem said.