May 7, 2011 in Nation/World

Rising waters prompt Memphis evacuations

Mississippi River tributaries back up
Adrian Sainz Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

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.
(Full-size photo)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Children played in front yards and neighbors chatted under a cloudless sky Friday in a south Memphis neighborhood, yards away from the rising water of the Nonconnah Creek.

The unforgiving creek has soaked Johnny Harris’ house as the rest of Memphis awaits floodwaters from the Mississippi River. Harris estimated he had more than 3 feet of water in his small, rented house on a low-lying section of Hazelwood Street.

“It’s like an ocean,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard closed a stretch of the swollen Mississippi to barge traffic upstream Friday, then reopened it later in the day. Any prolonged closure could cause a backup along the mighty river.

Farther south in Memphis police went door to door, warning thousands of people to leave before they get swamped.

Emergency workers in Memphis handed out bright yellow fliers in English and Spanish that read, “Evacuate!!! Your property is in danger right now.”

Near Nonconnah Creek, Jeanette Twillie and Shirley Woods waited anxiously, fearing the water will reach their homes.

“Hopefully, it don’t come up no more,” Twillie said.

All the way south into the Mississippi Delta, people faced the question of whether to stay or go as high water rolled down the river and backed up along its tributaries, breaking flood records that have stood since the Depression.

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 at 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, Ill., 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 as 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.

Most of the increased population comes in Memphis, where the county has increased from 223,000 to just under 1 million. Other big population increases were in Ascension, East Baton Rouge and Jefferson parishes in Louisiana, which combined increased by nearly 900,000 people, and DeSoto County, Miss., which increased by 137,000 people.

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