Mississippi floodwaters surge in Memphis, but crest is still days away

Evacuations and closed highways are a taste of what is in store for Memphis, Tenn., as the Mississippi rises. Farther south, Jackson, Miss., residents are already being asked to evacuate.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor

posted May 5, 2011 at 7:12 pm EDT

Rising floodwaters in and around Memphis, Tenn., Thursday have led to evacuations, highway and school closings, and at least one death.

But the highest waters are still days away. The city’s highest water level in 74 years is expected to crest next week, starting Wednesday.

The Mississippi River is currently at 45.2 feet, according to the National Weather Service, causing flooding primarily on Mud Island, which is connected to downtown Memphis through a bridge and causeway. About 5,000 residents are at risk.

A month of heavy rain and melting winter snow have combined to create a surge of dangerously high water levels moving downstream through the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

Among the communities affected are not only those along the two rivers, but also areas along and near their many tributaries in Arkansas, Missouri, and Kentucky. Evacuations are already taking place in Dyersburg, Tenn., because of projected floodwaters coming from the north end of the Forked Deer River, which intersects with the Mississippi.

Interstates 40 and 55 affected

Flooding caused Arkansas highway authorities on Wednesday to shut the westbound lanes on parts of Interstate 40. One man drowned in Prairie County, Ark., located about 100 miles west of Memphis. Water also blocked parts of Interstate 55 in Shelby County, which includes Memphis.

With water levels still rising by about a foot per day, the greatest impact is yet to come. Water is expected to crest at 48 feet in Memphis on Wednesday, the second highest river level since 1937, when flooding crested at 48.7 feet in the city. The National Weather Service is projecting a slow decrease, with water expected to remain in place for at least two weeks.

“It’s not going to go back down. It takes time, especially with a river as big as the Mississippi,” says Marlene Nickelson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Memphis.

Ms. Nickelson said recent record rainfall is accelerating the flooding. On Saturday, more than 3 inches of rain fell at Memphis International Airport, which shattered the record of 2.1 inches in 1876. Any communities near the Wolf and Loosahatchie rivers are under threat because of backwater coming from the Mississippi, according to the Shelby County Emergency Management Office, The agency says 2,832 properties, including 706 single-family homes, are under threat.

On Wednesday, President Obama declared parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi disaster zones.

Evacuation ‘far superior to rescue’

Even worse flooding is expected south of Memphis in the smaller communities located throughout the Mississippi Delta. River levels are expected to crest at 57.5 feet on May 18 in Vicksburg, Miss., potentially making it the highest on record there, according to the National Weather Service in Jackson, Miss. Water levels reached 47.2 feet late Wednesday. The city is sending workers door-to-door asking people to evacuate. The United Way of West Central Mississippi started taking applications to help cover housing costs for those who become displaced.

“Evacuation is absolutely the safe thing to do,” Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said at a news conference Wednesday. “There are going to be some mandatory evacuations. But I can tell you, evacuation is far, far superior to rescue.”

Governor Barbour said he expects that at least 900,000 acres of farmland in his state will be flooded, at a cost that may surpass $100 million. While federal assistance is on its way for the 11 counties in Mississippi that border the river, Barbour said he would request federal assistance for inland counties that are now likely to be affected.

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