MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Memphis braced for the rain-swollen Mississippi River to reach its highest level in more than 70 years by today, marking what officials hope will be a turning point in the fight against a slow-motion disaster that has flooded low-lying homes and farmland and sent hundreds of residents to emergency shelters.
Floodwaters swamped houses in low-lying neighborhoods and drove hundreds of people from their homes. But the Tennessee city’s musical landmarks – including bluesy Beale Street, Sun Studio and Graceland – should be spared, officials said.
Farther downstream, officials were worried too. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened a key spillway near New Orleans on Monday, allowing river water to flow into Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico. Louisiana officials began evacuating prisoners from the state’s toughest penitentiary.
Last week, the corps had to detonate sections of levee in Missouri, saving towns but inundating farmland.
Forecasters said it appeared that the river was starting to level out and could crest as soon as Monday night at or near 48 feet in Memphis, just shy of the all-time high. Forecasters had previously predicted the crest would come as late as Wednesday. The record is 48.7 feet, set in 1937 – a historic flood that killed 500 people in several states and inundated 20 million acres of land.
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said officials were going door to door to warn of the threat.
“We will be prepared even if it goes beyond” 48 feet, Wharton told PBS’ “NewsHour.” “We have acted all along as if it were right at 49 or 50 feet.”
But he stressed that city landmarks are safe on higher ground.
Sun Studio, where Elvis Presley made some of the recordings that helped him become king of rock ’n’ roll, was not in harm’s way. Nor was Stax Records, which launched the careers of Otis Redding and the Staple Singers. Sun Studio still does some recording, while Stax is now a museum.
Graceland, Presley’s former estate several miles south of downtown, was in no danger either.
“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.
The main Memphis airport was not threatened, nor was FedEx, which has a sorting hub at the airport that handles up to 2 million packages per day.
An NBA playoff game Monday night featuring the Memphis Grizzlies at the FedExForum downtown was not affected, and a barbecue contest this weekend was moved to higher ground.
“The country thinks were in lifeboats and we are underwater. For visitors, it’s business as usual,” said Kevin Kane, president and chief executive of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Sandbags were put up in front of the 32-story tall Pyramid Arena, which was once used for college and pro basketball but is now being turned into a fishing and sporting goods store.
Residents in more than 1,300 Memphis-area homes have been told to leave and about 370 people were staying in at least four shelters, city officials said.
Overall, more than 3,000 properties, including 949 single-family homes, were likely to be affected by the flooding in Memphis and surrounding Shelby County, county officials said.
Aurelio Flores, 36, his pregnant wife and their three children were among 175 people staying in a gymnasium at the Hope Presbyterian Church in Shelby County. His mobile home had about 4 feet of water when he last visited the trailer park on Wednesday.
“I imagine that my trailer, if it’s not covered, it’s close,” said Flores, an unemployed construction worker. “If I think about it too much, and get angry about it, it will mean the end of me.”
The city has stepped up security patrols to prevent looting, and county health officials warned residents on dry land to watch out for displaced snakes seeking shelter from the floodwaters.
Col. Vernie Reichling of the corps’ Memphis district told reporters that the river water was moving at 2 million cubic feet per second.
“In one second that water would fill up a football field 44 feet deep,” he said.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said late Monday that even though the river is approaching its crest, the flooding is far from over and water wouldn’t recede in some neighborhoods for at least two weeks.
“It’s not going to get a lot better for a while,” Haslam said of the flooding in neighborhoods near the Mississippi’s tributaries.
Downstream, officials readied for the Mighty Mississippi. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency and activated about 400 Louisiana National Guardsmen, who were contacting residents about possible flood threats, inspecting levees and placing sandbags along the banks.
On Monday, locals flocked to the Bonnet Carre Spillway near New Orleans to watch the Army Corps open floodgates, in hopes of diverting waters from the river. Jindal said the corps may soon decide whether to open a second spillway north of Baton Rouge.
Jindal said that the openings could cause flooding “through many southern portions of our state,” and that officials were preparing to assist in possible evacuations.
“Our first priority is absolutely the safety of residents,” Jindal said, “and our second priority is to protect property wherever we can.”