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Memphis braces for flooding as Mississippi nears its crest

Jonathan White and Leandra Felton waded through slowly rising flood waters with items from their home in Memphis, as the Mississippi River reached near-record levels. Jonathan White and Leandra Felton waded through slowly rising flood waters with items from their home in Memphis, as the Mississippi River reached near-record levels. (Eric Thayer/ Reuters)
By Janet Blake
Associated Press / May 8, 2011

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HICKMAN, Ky. — As Memphis readied for the mighty Mississippi to bring its furor to town, some Kentucky residents upstream returned to their homes yesterday, optimistic the levees would hold and that they had seen the worst of the flooding.

In the small town of Hickman, officials and volunteers spent nearly two weeks piling sandbags 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 yesterday, the levee had held, and officials boasted that only a few houses appeared to be damaged. More important, no one was injured or killed.

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

Downstream, though, there was danger, in places like Memphis, the Mississippi Delta, and Louisiana. In Arkansas, authorities recovered the body of a man who drove around barricades earlier in the week and was swept away by flood waters when he tried to walk out.

Record river levels, some dating to the 1920s, were expected to be broken in some parts along the river. In Memphis, the river is expected to crest at 48 feet on Wednesday, just shy of the 48.7-foot record from the devastating flood of 1937. But the current crest in Memphis is already the second-highest for the city, eclipsing the previous 45.9-foot peak set during the historic flood of 1927.

Mayor A.C. Wharton of Memphis warned residents in low-lying areas to evacuate.

Some Memphis residents saw rain yesterday, and though forecasters said the small amount moisture wouldn’t affect flooding, it was enough to get some people packing, calling the city bus for transportation out. The forecast called for drier weather until Thursday.

William Owen, 53, didn’t heed the call until firefighters began to bang on his door yesterday morning. Owen said when he went to sleep, the water wasn’t that high. By midday, it had risen about a foot, and was around the base of his home.

He grabbed his medication and took a city bus, along with his girlfriend and dog, to a shelter. He was told he may have to stay for two weeks.

“It seems like we’ve had a stroke of bad luck,’’ Owen said. “I’m hoping things will get better; I just don’t know what else to do right now.’’

About 100 miles to the north, residents in Tiptonville, Tenn., were hopeful as the river levels started to fall. About one-fifth of the town has had some flooding. All told, 75 homes have been swamped.

About 30 miles of county roads were cut off and impassable, and fields of corn, soybeans, wheat, and cotton have been drowned.

Most of the Tiptonville homes were inundated with rainwater, not from the Mississippi. Because the levees’ gates are closed, the town relied on pumps to move the near constant rain over the past couple of weeks, but they couldn’t keep up.

Elsewhere, officials in Louisiana warned residents that even if a key spillway northwest of Baton Rouge was opened, residents should expect floods comparable to those of 1973. Some of Louisiana’s most valuable farmland is expected to be inundated with water.

Louisiana’s governor, 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.

A separate spillway northwest of New Orleans was to be opened tomorrow, helping ease the pressure on levees there.

To the north in Arkansas, a portion of Interstate 40 remained closed.

Because of the billions of dollars spent on levees and other flood defenses built over the years, engineers say 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.

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 calamity.

The Corps also straightened out sections of the river that used to meander and pool perilously. As a result, the Mississippi flows into the Gulf of Mexico faster, and water presses against the levees for shorter periods.

About 4 million people live along the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers from Cairo, Illinois, south to the Gulf of Mexico.

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