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Memphis braces for mighty Mississippi's wrath

 The eastbound lane of Interstate 40 near Hazen, Ark., remains open as floodwater form the White River blocks the westbound lane, right, Thursday, May...
 A walkway to the Lighthouse Point Casino lies underwater as the waters in Lake Ferguson begin to rise as does its feeder source, the Mississippi Rive...
 The rising waters of Lake Ferguson flood the Greenville Yacht Club and are forcing the evacuation of its neighbor the Lighthouse Point Casino, in Gre...
 A driver tries to drive on a submerged portion of Mississippi Highway 465 on his way to Eagle Lake, near Vicksburg, Miss., before rising flood waters...
 A tugboat heads under the Harahan Bridge in Memphis, Tenn., next to Tom Lee Park which is beginning to be flooded by the Mississippi River on Friday,...

Severe Weather Flooding

The eastbound lane of Interstate 40 near Hazen, Ark., remains open as floodwater form the White River blocks the westbound lane, right, Thursday, May...

Mississippi Flooding

A walkway to the Lighthouse Point Casino lies underwater as the waters in Lake Ferguson begin to rise as does its feeder source, the Mississippi Rive...

Mississippi Flooding

The rising waters of Lake Ferguson flood the Greenville Yacht Club and are forcing the evacuation of its neighbor the Lighthouse Point Casino, in Gre...

Mississippi Flooding

A driver tries to drive on a submerged portion of Mississippi Highway 465 on his way to Eagle Lake, near Vicksburg, Miss., before rising flood waters...

Severe Weather Flooding

A tugboat heads under the Harahan Bridge in Memphis, Tenn., next to Tom Lee Park which is beginning to be flooded by the Mississippi River on Friday,...

As the crest of the Mississippi River crept south, worried residents from Tennessee to Louisiana carefully watched the river rise and made plans to evacuate if necessary.
Plastic bottles and tree limbs slowly drifted on the surface of the brown water near Henry Allen's driveway, an ominous sign the flood was coming toward his home in a low-lying area in northeast Memphis. Allen decided it was time to flee.
The water threatening his house was actually flowing over the banks of a tributary that feeds into the Mississippi, which is backed up with more water than it can handle.
`'I hope I've got it worked out," said Allen, who was getting ready to pack his red Ford F-150 pickup truck with TVs, microwaves and clothes and head for an aunt's house Saturday. "What we leave behind, I don't care about it. I hope it don't get so bad that we have to cry about anything."
His house is about 9 feet (3 meters) above the current water level, but the water has already inundated more than eight houses on his street, approaching the front windows of a few homes, nearly covering their mailboxes.
"We can't do nothing about what Mother Nature kicks at us," Allen said. "This is history making right here."
Record river levels, some dating as far back as the 1920s, were expected to be broken in some parts along the river. In Memphis, the river was expected to crest at 48 feet (14.6 meters) on Wednesday, just shy of the 48.7-foot (14.84-meter) 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 (14-meter) peak set during the historic flood of 1927.
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. How bad it gets depends on how well the flood-protection systems have been built and maintained, he said.
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.
It's about twice as many people who lived in the region before the 1927 and 1937 floods. In 1920, 2 million people lived in those counties and in 1930, 2.3 million lived there.
In Louisiana, state officials 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 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.
A separate spillway northwest of New Orleans was to be opened Monday, helping ease the pressure on levees there.
The state's Department of Children and Family Services increased shelter space near the areas expected to be flooded and is preparing for extended stays.
To the north in Arkansas, a portion of Interstate 40 remained closed. The water there forced Jeffen Roddy to abandon her home in Biscoe, in the eastern part of the state. Then, the effects of the flooding followed Roddy to work.
She waits tables part-time at Craig's Bros. Cafe, which feeds the truckers who have been rerouted.
"There's no big trucks coming in and out of here," Roddy said from an empty restaurant in De Valls Bluff on Friday. "We don't have one customer."
Coast Guard Capt. Michael Gardiner said river monitoring will continue and that navigation on the Mississippi 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 can move 45 barges at once.
Lynn Muench, a vice president of the American Waterways Operators, said an extended shutdown would have a multimillion-dollar effect on the barge industry and slow the movement of many products.
"It's just like if you took out every bridge going over the Mississippi, what that would mean to railroad and vehicle traffic?" Muench said. "You're shutting down a major thoroughfare."
She added: "The last thing we want is a levee to go, but we also want to keep moving."
In Tennessee, local authorities were uncertain whether they had legal authority to order evacuations, and hoped that 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.
About 950 households in Memphis and about 135 other homes in Shelby County were getting the notices, Shelby County Division Fire Chief Joseph Rike said. Shelters were opened, and the fliers include a phone number to arrange transportation for people who need it.
Graceland, Elvis Presley's home and one of the city's best-known landmarks, is about a 20-minute drive from the river and in no danger of flooding, spokesman Kevin Kern said. "We're on a hill, high and dry and open for business, and will stay open," Kern said.
Water pooled at the lowest end of Beale Street, the thoroughfare synonymous with Mississippi blues, but it was about a half-mile (800 meters) from the street's world-famous nightspots.
The main Memphis airport was not threatened, nor was FedEx, which has a sorting hub at the airport that handles up to 2 million packages per day.
Bea, the civil engineer, said he is concerned because some levees across the U.S. have been built with inferior dirt, or even sand, and have been poorly designed.
"The standards we use to build these things are on the horribly low side if you judge them by world criteria and conditions," he said. "The breaches, as we learned in New Orleans, are the killers."
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.
___
Burdeau reported from Greenville, Mississippi. Jim Salter in St. Louis; Lucas L. Johnson in Memphis; Molly Davis in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Travis Loller in Nashville, Tennessee; Jeannie Nuss in Little Rock, Arkansas; and Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-10-22 16:11 GMT+08:00