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Mighty Mississippi begins to wrap Memphis

The Mississippi River began wrapping Memphis and rising to record levels Saturday as flood-wary residents from Tennessee to Louisiana made plans to evacuate if necessary.
/ Source: news services

The Mississippi River was gradually starting to "wrap its arms" around Memphis and rise to near-record levels Saturday.

As the river crest crept south, worried residents from Tennessee to Louisiana made plans to evacuate if necessary.

"It's a pretty day here, and people get a false sense of security," said Steve Shular, public affairs officer for the Shelby County, Ky., Office of Preparedness. "The mighty Mississippi is starting to wrap its arms around us here in Memphis."

In Memphis, the crest was forecast to reach 48 feet on Tuesday morning — . The Mississippi passed 47 feet on Saturday.

The National Weather Service expected crests in Mississippi at Vicksburg on May 20 and Natchez on May 22.

In Shelby County, Ky., officials were going house-to-house in areas threatened by flooding from the Mississippi and its tributaries. Nearly 3,000 properties are at risk. Shular said residents are being told that if they have been flooded before, they will be again.

Rising water flooded 25 mobile homes in the Rosewood Trailer Park in north Memphis on Saturday morning. The residents were evacuated.

Most of downtown Memphis is on a bluff above the river, so landmarks like the Peabody Hotel are not considered at risk. Graceland Mansion, the home of rock legend Elvis Presley, was dry and not affected by the floods.

At historic Sun Studio, where Presley and country singer Johnny Cash got their starts, tour guide Jake Fly said people north and south of the city are "really feeling it."

"We're all hoping this river is going to crest soon, man," said Fly. "Man, it's something to see."

The river was cresting Saturday afternoon at New Madrid, Mo., upstream, and at Tiptonville, Tenn., said Marlene Mickelson, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Memphis.

In Memphis, sightseers gathered near the riverfront to take pictures of the flooding.

"Most of the tourists weren't trying to visit the clubs on Beale Street, but they were trying to touch the water," said Joseph Braslow, 20, son of one of the owners of A. Schwab Dry Goods on Beale Street, a 134-year-old department store.

Shular said a major concern is flooding along the tributaries of the Mississippi. These smaller streams and rivers usually flow into the larger river, but are "hitting a brick wall" and backing up. After next week's crest in Memphis, thunderstorms are expected, which could result in flash flooding, Shular said.

Effects up and down the river
Further north on the river at Caruthersville, Mo., the U.S. Coast Guard said it closed commercial barge traffic briefly Friday as the river rose to near the top of a floodwall. Traffic later was reopened and is not expected to be restricted again, according to Petty Officer 2nd Class Bill Colclough, spokesman for the Guard.

Barges regularly move coal, grain, ore, gravel, auto parts and other vital products down the Mississippi. A single barge can carry as much material as 70 tractor-trailers, and some towboats can move 45 barges at once.

In Arkansas, a portion of Interstate 40, a major national road artery for trucking, remained closed Saturday because of flood waters.

In the state of Mississippi, more than 2,000 residents will have to evacuate as the river continues to rise, according to Katherine Gunby, spokeswoman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

A snowy winter spawned near-record crests on the Upper Mississippi this year that reached southern Illinois at about the same time as heavy rain swelled the Ohio River.

The resulting flows have threatened to overwhelm the intricate flood levee system, prompting the U.S. government to open a Missouri floodway for the first time since 1937 to relieve pressure.

The U.S. government blew a two-mile hole in the Birds Point levee last Monday, flooding up to 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland to save some Illinois and Kentucky towns.

Flooding heads for Louisiana
Officials in Louisiana warned residents that even if a key spillway northwest of Baton Rouge was opened, residents could expect water 5  to 25 feet deep over seven parishes. Some of Louisiana's most valuable farmland is expected to be inundated with water.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had asked the Mississippi River Commission president for permission to open the Morganza Floodway — an action taken only once since the structure was built in the 1950s. In 1973, the corps opened some of the gates to spill Mississippi River floodwaters into the Atchafalaya Basin.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said the Morganza spillway could be opened as soon as Thursday, but a decision has not been made. If it is opened, it could stay open for weeks.

The corps plans to open the Bonnet Carre Spillway 28 miles north of New Orleans on Monday to relieve pressure on the city by diverting some of the flow to Lake Pontchartrain.

The Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services increased shelter space near the areas expected to be flooded and is preparing for extended stays.

"You could see the spillway opened up for a few weeks, so it is going to be important that these shelters are going to be available to these folks beyond just the few days that is normally the case with a hurricane evacuation," Jindal said.

Since the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, a disaster that killed hundreds, Congress has made protecting the cities on the lower Mississippi a priority. The Army Corps of Engineers has spent $13 billion 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.

More than 4 million people live in 63 counties and parishes adjacent to the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers from Cairo, Illinois south to the Gulf of Mexico, down from 4.1 million in 2000, according to a census analysis by The Associated Press.

But there were sighs of relief upstream on Saturday.

Some Kentucky residents returned to their homes, optimistic the levees would hold and that they had seen the worst of the flooding.

In the small town of Hickman, Ky., officials and volunteers spent nearly two weeks piling sandbags on top of each other to shore up the 17-mile levee, preparing for a disaster of historic proportion. About 75 residents were told to flee town and waited anxiously for days to see just how bad the flooding would be.

By Saturday, the levee had held, and officials boasted that only a few houses appeared to be damaged. More importantly, no one was injured or killed.

"We have held back the Mississippi River and that's a feat," Fulton County's emergency management director Hugh Caldwell said. "We didn't beat it, but it didn't beat us. We'll call it a draw."