Memphis Residents Evacuate as Mississippi River Set to Reach Near-Record Levels

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- More Memphis residents were being told Sunday to flee their homes for higher ground as the mighty Mississippi edged toward the city, threatening to bring more flooding to parts of an area already soaked.

Officials were going door-to-door, warning about 240 people to get out before the river reaches its expected peak Tuesday. In all, residents in more than 1,300 homes have been told to go, and some 370 people were staying in shelters.

The mighty Mississippi spared Kentucky and northwest Tennessee any catastrophic flooding, but some low-lying towns and farmland along the banks of the big river have been inundated with water. And there's tension farther south in the Mississippi Delta and Louisiana as the crest of the river continues its lazy pace, leaving behind what could be a slow-moving disaster.

Jittery Memphis residents have been abandoning low-lying homes for days as the dangerously surging river threatened to crest at 48 feet, just shy of a 48.7-foot record of a devastating 1937 flood.

Record river levels, some dating as far back as the 1920s, have already been broken in some areas. Heavy rains and snowmelt have been blamed for the flooding.

Rain didn't help ease the anxiety in Memphis on Saturday, and it was just enough to send some packing and calling the city bus for transportation out. The precipitation wasn't expected to add to the flood levels, though, forecasters said.

"Reality has set in, so now we're getting more calls," said Alvin Pearson, assistant manager of operations for Memphis bus service.

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 upstream when water levels began to recede.

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. 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.

At the site of Beale Street, the thoroughfare synonymous with Mississippi blues, water pooled at the end of it and tourists took pictures. The water was about a half-mile from the street's world-famous nightspots.

In Tiptonville, Tenn., in the northwest part of the state, an estimated one-fifth of the town suffered some flooding with dozens of homes inundated and corn, soybean and wheatfields underwater. But so far, most towns 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.

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


Associated Press Writers 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.