MEMPHIS, Tennessee – The swollen Mississippi River has swamped houses in Memphis and threatens to consume many more, but its rise has been slow enough that some people were clinging to their normal lives just a bit longer. That much was clear Sunday from an unexpected smell – barbecue – in a neighborhood that already lost three houses.
With the river just feet from her single-story home, Shirley Woods had the grill going in the backyard, cooking ribs, pork chops, chicken and hot dogs. She was getting ready to make potato salad.
When she woke up at first light, she was prepared to leave if the Mississippi had gotten high enough, but she decided she had time to at least celebrate Mother’s Day here with relatives.
“I’ll give it another day, and if it comes up much higher, we’re getting out of here,” Woods said.
Memphis residents have been abandoning low-lying homes for days as the dangerously surging river threatened to crest at 48 feet, just shy of the 48.7-foot record, set during a devastating 1937 flood.
Officials went door-to-door Sunday, 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.
But while some evacuated their homes, others came as spectators. At Beale Street, the famous thoroughfare known for blues, dozens gawked and snapped photos as water pooled at the end of the road. Traffic was heavy downtown on a day the streets would normally be quiet.
The river is “probably the biggest tourist attraction in Memphis,” said Scott Umstead, who made the half-hour drive from Collierville with his wife and their three children.
Floodwaters were about a half-mile from the 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.
And there’s tension farther south in the Mississippi Delta and Louisiana, where the river could create a slow-developing disaster.
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.
Along the overflowing Nonconnah Creek in south Memphis, Cedric Blue has watched water engulf three homes on his street. Blue has lived in his one-story house since he was born, and fears the rising water will wash away a lifetime of memories.
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 along what Reichling called the “wicked” Mississippi. “There should be no concern for any levees to fail,” he said in a downtown park on a bluff overlooking the river.
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.
The Morganza spillway, northwest of Baton Rouge, could be opened as early as Thursday, but a decision has not yet been made.
A separate spillway northwest of New Orleans was to be opened today, helping ease the pressure on levees there, and inmates were set to be evacuated from the low-lying state prison in Angola.
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.