MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Some jittery Memphis residents began abandoning low-lying homes as the dangerously surging Mississippi River threatened to crest in coming days just shy of a 48.7-foot record of a devastating 1937 flood.
Record river levels, some dating as far back as the 1920s, were expected to be broken in some areas as the swollen river threatened flood-prone areas of Memphis on down through the Mississippi Delta into rich Louisiana farming country. In Memphis, the river was expected to crest at 48 feet by Tuesday.
Some anxious Memphis residents saw some rain Saturday, just enough to send some packing — and calling the city bus for transportation out.
"Reality has set in, so now we're getting more calls," said Alvin Pearson, assistant manager of operations for Memphis bus service.
And downriver in Louisiana, officials warned residents that even if a key spillway northwest of Baton Rouge were to be opened, residents could expect water 5- to 25-feet deep over parts of seven parishes. Some of Louisiana's most valuable farmland is expected to be inundated.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said the vital Morganza spillway, northwest of Baton Rouge, could be opened as early as Thursday although a decision has not yet 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, and inmates were set to be evacuated the same day from the low-lying state prison in Angola.
Meanwhile, there was relief in communities farther upriver after water levels began to recede after days of anxious waiting — and testing of the levee defenses. Heavy winter storms and snowmelt are blamed for 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 slow-moving disaster of historic proportion. About 75 residents were told to flee town. But by Saturday, the levee had held, and officials boasted that only a few houses appeared to be damaged and no one had been injured or killed.
"We have held back the Mississippi River and that's a feat," said one emergency management director, Hugh Caldwell. "We didn't beat it, but it didn't beat us."
Some were left cleaning up mud oozing in front doors and wrecking carpeting and furnishings.
"We just never even thought of it getting this high," said Karla Fields, who with husband Tony and their 8-year-old son were forced to live on the second floor of their home when the water rose on their 13 wooded acres.
In Arkansas, authorities recovered the body of a man who drove around barricades earlier in the week and was swept away by floodwaters when he tried to walk out.
Wary of such dangers, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton warned residents in low-lying areas to evacuate.
William Owen, 53, didn't heed the call until firefighters began to bang on his door Saturday morning at a Memphis mobile home park. Owen said when he went to sleep, the water wasn't that high. By midday, it had risen around the base of his home.
He and his girlfriend took a city bus out, along with his dog.
"It seems like we've had a stroke of bad luck," Owen said after settling in a shelter. "I'm hoping things will get better, I just don't know what else to do right now."
For those on higher ground, it was a different story.
At Graceland, Elvis Presley's Memphis 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. Water pooled at the lowest end of Beale Street, the thoroughfare synonymous with Mississippi blues, but it was about a half-mile from the street's world-famous nightspots.
And about 100 miles to the north, residents in Tiptonville, Tenn., were hopeful as the river levels began to ebb.
Like many other areas along the Mississippi, the town wasn't completely spared. In Tiptonville, an estimated one-fifth of the town suffered some flooding with dozens of homes inundated and corn, soybean and wheatfields underwater.
So far, most towns along the banks of the big river have been spared calamitous floodwaters. Billions of dollars have been spent on levees and other flood defenses built over the years, and engineers say it is unlikely any major metropolitan areas will be inundated as the water pushes downstream over the next week or two. Nonetheless, farms, small towns and even some urban areas could see extensive flooding.
As Hickman resident Jeff Jones put it after the levee held: "This was a disaster, but it wasn't disastrous."
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.
The corps also straightened out sections of the river that used to meander and pool dangerously. As a result, the Mississippi flows into the Gulf of Mexico faster, and water presses against the levees for shorter periods.
More than 4 million people live in 63 counties and parishes adjacent to the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers from Cairo, Ill., south to the Gulf of Mexico, census figures show
Cappiello reported from Hickman, Ky., Rebecca Yonker in Louisville, Ky.; Cain Burdeau in Greenville, Miss; Emily Wagster Pettus in Natchez, Miss.; and Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report.