James Wright takes a look at floodwater in Memphis. Residents are waiting for the Mississippi River to reach its peak expected as early as Monday night as the river rises near its highest level ever in Memphis, flooding pockets of low-lying neighborhoods. (Photo: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The Mississippi crept toward the highest level ever in the river city, flooding pockets of low-lying neighborhoods and forcing hundreds from their homes, though the water was not threatening the music heartland's most recognizable landmarks, from Graceland to Beale Street.
As residents waited for the river to reach its peak as early as Monday night — several inches short of the record mark set in 1937 — those downstream in Mississippi and Louisiana evacuated prisoners and diverted water from the river in an attempt to stave off catastrophic flooding in a region prone to such disasters.
In Memphis, emergency officials warned the river was still dangerous and unpredictable, but they were confident the levees would hold and there were no plans for more evacuations. Sandbags were put up in front of the 32-story tall Pyramid Arena, but the former home of college and professional basketball teams was believed to be safe. Also out of the way were Stax Records, which launched the careers of Otis Redding and the Staple Singers, and Sun Studio, which helped make Elvis the king of rock 'n' roll.
Sun Studio still does some recording, but Stax is now a museum and tourist attraction. Graceland, which is several miles south of downtown, was also spared.
"I want to say this: Graceland is safe. And we would charge hell with a water pistol to keep it that way and I'd be willing to lead the charge," said Bob Nations Jr., director of the Shelby County Emergency Management Agency.
Authorities spent the weekend knocking on doors to tell a couple hundred more people that they should abandon their homes before they are swamped by waters. More than 300 people were staying in shelters, and officials said they had stepped up patrols in evacuated areas to prevent looting.
Aurelio Flores, 36, his pregnant wife and their three children have been living at a shelter for 11 days. His mobile home had about four feet of water when he last visited the trailer park Wednesday.
"I imagine that my trailer, if it's not covered, it's close," said Flores, an out-of-work construction worker. "If I think about it too much, and get angry about it, it will mean the end of me."
He was one of 175 people staying in a gymnasium at the Hope Presbyterian Church in east Shelby County. He said morale was good at the shelter, mostly because there were friends and neighbors staying there, too.
"The main thing is that all left that trailer park with our lives," Flores said. "God will help us find a new place to live."
Forecasters said it looks like the river was starting to level out and could crest as soon as Monday night, at or near 48 feet, just shy of the 48.7-foot mark set in 1937. Forecasters had previously predicted the crest would come as late as Wednesday. On the horizon, however, rain was forecast for later in the week, which could bring the danger of flash flooding.
Kevin Kane, president and chief executive of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he believed the media had overblown the flooding.
"The country thinks were in lifeboats and we are underwater," Kane said. "For visitors, its business as usual."
Col. Vernie Reichling, Army Corps of Engineers commander for the Memphis district, said the homes in most danger of flooding are in areas not protected by levees or floodwalls, including near Nonconnah Creek and the Wolf and Loosahatchie rivers.
About 150 Corps workers were walking along levees and monitoring performance of pump stations.
"There should be no concern for any levees to fail," he said in a downtown park on a bluff overlooking the river.
While some evacuated, others came as spectators. At Beale Street, the famous thoroughfare known for blues music, people gawked and snapped photos as water pooled at the end of the road. Flood waters were about a half-mile from the Beale Street's world-famous nightspots, which are on higher ground.
The river already reached record levels in some areas upstream, thanks to heavy rains and snowmelt. It spared Kentucky and northwest Tennessee any catastrophic flooding and no deaths have been reported there, but some low lying towns and farmland along the banks of the river have been inundated.
There's so much water in the Mississippi that the tributaries that feed into it are also backed up, creating some of the worst flood problems so far.
Farther south in Louisiana, the corps partially opened a spillway that diverts the Mississippi into a lake to ease pressure on the levee system in greater New Orleans. As workers used cranes to remove some of the Bonnet Carre Spillway's wooden barriers, which serve as a dam against the high water, several hundred curiosity-seekers watched from the riverbank.
The spillway, which the Corps built about 30 miles upriver from New Orleans in response to the great flood of 1927, last opened during the spring 2008. Monday marked the 10th time it has been opened since the structure was completed in 1931.
Rufus Harris Jr., 87, said his family moved to New Orleans in 1927 only months after the flood killed hundreds. He was too young to remember those days, but the stories he heard gave him respect for the river.
"People have a right to be concerned in this area because there's always a possibility of a levee having a defective spot," Harris said as he watched water rush out.
The corps also has asked for permission to open the Morganza spillway north of Baton Rouge, which diverts river water into the Atchafalaya Basin. It hasn't been opened since 1973.
Officials warned residents that even if it were opened, they could expect water 5 to 25 feet (1.5 to 7.5 meters) deep over parts of seven parishes. Some of Louisiana's most valuable farmland is expected to be inundated.
At the home of the state's death row in Angola north of Baton Rouge, state officials started moving prisoners with medical problems as backwaters began to rise. Eight buses and several vans escorted by police moved less than 200 inmates, though more could be taken out later. Inside the prison, some inmates were being moved to less vulnerable buildings.
The prison has not been flooded since 1927, although prisoners have been evacuated at other times when high water threatened, most recently in 1997. The 18,000-acre prison holds more 5,000 inmates and is bordered on three sides by the Mississippi River.
Engineers say it is unlikely any major metropolitan areas will be inundated as the water pushes downstream over the next week or two. Nonetheless, they are cautious.
Since the flood of 1927, a disaster that killed hundreds, Congress has made protecting the cities on the lower Mississippi a priority, spending billions 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.
Floodwaters have inundated much of east Arkansas for more than a week, and the river has several more days before an expected crest at Arkansas City, in the state's southeast.
Some roads in the northeast part of the state reopened as floodwaters drained a bit, but Interstate 40 remained closed at the White River, which was over its banks. The highway could be closed until Wednesday.
In Missouri, at least one flood expert said he was hopeful that the damage from intentionally blowing up part of the levee wouldn't do as much damage as many feared. The southeastern part of the state is home to some of the richest farmland in the Midwest.
"I'm hopeful the land will not be damaged as much as we've seen in other floodplains where the levee is breached," said Bob Holmes, national flood specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey.
The Army Corps of Engineers used explosives May 2 to blast a massive hole in the levee near the town of Wyatt, allowing the Mississippi River to engulf 130,000 acres of land that produces wheat, corn and soybeans.
The expected bumper wheat crop nearing harvest was lost. Corn and soybeans won't be planted this year. State and federal agriculture leaders have promised that the incident will be treated like a national disaster to aid home and land owners.
Associated Press writers Michael Kunzelman in Norco, La.; Mary Foster in Angola, La.; Jim Salter in St. Louis and Chuck Bartels in Little Rock contributed to this report.