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Bracing all along the Mississippi

Threat of floods prompts Memphis to issue warnings

Bogota, Tenn., resident Jerry Brooks used walking sticks to help him navigate as he waded from the street into his driveway yesterday. Bogota, Tenn., resident Jerry Brooks used walking sticks to help him navigate as he waded from the street into his driveway yesterday. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
By Adrian Sainz and Cain Burdeau
Associated Press / May 7, 2011

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Children played in front yards and neighbors chatted under a cloudless sky yesterday in a south Memphis neighborhood, yards away from the rising water of the Nonconnah Creek.

The unforgiving creek has soaked Johnny Harris’ house as the rest of Memphis awaits flood waters from the Mississippi River. Harris estimated he had more than 3 feet of water in his small, rented house on a low-lying section of Hazelwood Street.

“It’s like an ocean,’’ he said.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard closed a stretch of the swollen Mississippi to barge traffic upstream yesterday, then reopened it later in the day. Any prolonged closure could cause a backup along the mighty river.

Farther south in Memphis went door to door, warning thousands of people to leave before they get swamped.

Emergency workers in Memphis handed out bright yellow fliers in English and Spanish that read, “Evacuate!!! Your property is in danger right now.’’

All the way south into the Mississippi Delta, people faced the question of whether to stay or go as high water rolled down the river and backed up along its tributaries, breaking flood records that have stood since the Depression.

Because of levees and other flood defenses built over the years, engineers said it is unlikely any major metropolitan areas will be inundated as the water pushes downstream over the next week or two, but farms, small towns, and even some urban areas could see extensive flooding.

“It’s going to be nasty,’’ said Bob Bea, a civil engineer at the University of California-Berkeley who investigated levee failures in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

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.

In Tennessee, local authorities were uncertain whether they had legal authority to order evacuations, and hoped the fliers would persuade people to leave. Bob Nations, director of emergency management for Shelby County, which includes Memphis, said there was still time to get out. The river is not expected to crest until Wednesday.

“This does not mean that water is at your doorstep,’’ Nations said of the door-to-door effort. “This means you are in a high-impact area.’’

The Coast Guard closed a five-mile stretch of the Mississippi to protect Caruthersville, Mo., and said barges could be banned for up to eight days. Then, later in the day, they reopened it after the National Weather Service lowered the projected crest at Caruthersville from 49.5 feet to 48.1 feet.

The fear was that the wake from big boats would push water over a floodwall and into the town of 6,700.

Coast Guard Capt. Michael Gardiner said river monitoring will continue and that navigation will be restricted when necessary.

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 move 45 barges at once.

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