Memphis largely spared as Mississippi River floodwaters near historic high

Gawkers gathered beside the Mississippi River to see floodwaters near 48 feet. Most of the flood damage was in low-lying areas outside downtown Memphis.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor

posted May 10, 2011 at 9:16 pm EDT

Memphis, Tenn. – For one day at least, the allure of Elvis Presley, blues music, and juicy barbecue are temporarily playing second fiddle to Mississippi River floodwaters that crested at nearly 48 feet Tuesday – the city’s highest level in 74 years.

The fact that streams of tourists and locals lined the city’s riverfront, either snapping photos or just gazing outward in silence, speaks to both the once-in-a-lifetime nature of the current floods and to Memphis’s good fortune.

Elsewhere, in lower-lying parts of Shelby County, submerged homes were noticeable only by their rooftop satellite dishes, and the residents of more than 1,300 homes were ordered to evacuate – with nearly 500 people taking shelter in five local churches.

And greater concern is mounting farther south, where floodwaters could rise higher, threatening communities in the Mississippi Delta.

On Tuesday, however, Memphis’s riverside bluff offered gawkers a safe view of something they never thought they would see.

“It’s history,” says Regina Cavanaugh of nearby Collierville, who grew up in Memphis.

She, like most prowling the banks of Jefferson Davis Park, was armed with a camera, taking photos she was eager to share with others online. “I’ve seen high water before … but nothing compared to this.”

The water is expected to stand at 47.9 feet – its highest level since 1937 – for at least several days before slowly receding almost a tenth of an inch each day through the weekend, according to the National Weather Service. County officials say the area faces considerable work ahead: dangerous undercurrents, health challenges, and river sludge that will require weeks, if not months, of cleanup.

On Wednesday, President Obama declared Shelby County, along with 14 others in Tennessee, federal disaster areas, meaning that federal aid will cover at least 75 percent of recovery costs.

There is more rain to come. Severe thunderstorms and a possible flash flood warning are forecast for Thursday evening and continuing into the weekend, says the National Weather Service.

“We are not out of this because the Mississippi River is cresting. This water is going to be with us for quite some time to come,” says Bob Nations, director of Shelby County’s office of preparedness. “The threat exists while the water is up.”

Officials agree things could have been worse. Since water started surging two weeks ago, flooding has caused only one death in the area and the 1,200-plus miles of levees in the US Army Corps of Engineers’ Memphis district have held.

Memphis’s downtown is also dry, due to fortunate geography: the majority of Memphis is perched on a bluff looking down at the river. A stroll down Beale St., the city’s historic music corridor, is no different than any other time. However, at the street’s end, people pop out of their cars and pose for photos before moving on.

Below, kids wade to a solitary park bench surrounded by chocolate-colored waves. “We usually sit on that bench right there and have a picnic, but there’s no picnic today,” says Sherri Bartlett of suburban Jewell, who took her four children out of school to bring them downtown to see the river. “I figure they’re probably never going to see this ever again.”

The story was different, however, for those living in lowlands. About 3,000 homes in the county have been affected, say officials. Damage was worse upriver in Tiptonville, Tenn., where 75 percent of the homes were damaged.

Aurelio Flores, a construction worker, moved his three children and pregnant wife to a shelter on April 29 once water reached his knees and he knew his home could no longer be saved.

His family now lives in a temporary shelter in the gymnasium of Hope Presbyterian Church in nearby Cordova. Through an interpreter he says he has no plans, but is spending his days volunteering for the church performing janitorial duties, a service that has even earned him a key, which he proudly wears around his neck.

Scott Milholland, the church’s chief operating officer, says the shelter houses 175 people and will stay open for as long as there is need. Inside the church’s hallways, children surf the Internet, babies sleep beside their mothers, and one woman cuts hair – a skill she practiced before her salon was destroyed by the water.

“It’s been a blessing, the best thing,” Mr. Flores says of the help he has received. “We’re very grateful.”

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