Posted on 10 May 2011
Flooding low-lying neighborhoods in the city but falling short of record levels that would have caused far more damage, the Mississippi River crested this morning.
The river topped out at 47.8 feet early Tuesday, far above flood stage, but 4 inches lower than the predicted crest of 48 feet and almost a foot lower than the record crest of 48.7 feet in 1937.
It is expected to stay at or near that level for several days before receding as the crest moves downriver, said Susan Buchanan of the National Weather Service. Despite the presence of many people who ventured to the riverside to have a look on Monday, county officials urged residents to take caution, offering the same advice one might give in the presence of a mad dog: keep your distance until it moves on.
“There is a lot of fascination with the mighty Mississippi, but it’s a river in rage right now,” Bob Nations, the director of the Shelby County Office of Preparedness, said at a Monday afternoon briefing. “It’s a love-hate relationship we have with it.”
Mr. Nations emphasized that the real flooding concern was not necessarily with the Mississippi itself but with tributaries like the Wolf and Loosahatchie Rivers that feed into it. The levees along the river itself were holding up, officials from the Army Corps of Engineers said on Monday.
But the tributaries and creeks, deluged with backwater flowing from the Mississippi, are escaping their banks in suburbs and mobile home parks in Memphis and surrounding Shelby County.
Using maps and modeling, county emergency officials estimated that roughly 3,000 properties were likely to be affected by the flooding. And 2,000 more could be affected if the river rises another few feet, city officials said.
The authorities in Memphis have been going door to door for days in flood-prone parts of Shelby County, urging hundreds of residents to move to higher ground. By Monday, about 400 people were staying in three shelters in the area, though others have also left their homes.
“I couldn’t see myself being rescued from a rooftop,” said Lanette Coleman, who left her home in north Memphis on Friday and was staying in a hotel.
Ms. Coleman did not believe her house would flood, but with water starting to pool in parts of her neighborhood, she did not want to be trapped. She was also wary of having to face down snakes, stray dogs and other uninvited guests that are already starting to show up with the floodwaters. “I’ve never seen so many cats,” she said.
Among the pets at emergency shelters, the Shelby County Office of Preparedness reported, are 65 dogs, 18 cats, 15 puppies and, curiously, two ducks.
As the crest of the river rolled into Memphis, it began to recede in other hard-hit areas. Upriver in Tiptonville, Tenn., officials are waiting for the water to come down a little more so they can check on the estimated 75 homes damaged by flooding.
In Arkansas, where the crest of the White River is slowly moving south, 16 towns have been affected by flooding, said Renee Preslar, a spokeswoman for the state emergency management agency.
The recent flooding has been responsible for at least three deaths in Arkansas, bringing to 18 the toll of people who have died in the state since a wave of heavy rains and storms came through on April 23.
Downriver, anxiety and preparations continued to mount. As some state prisoners were filling sand bags in Mississippi and Louisiana, about 200 inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, which is bordered on three sides by the Mississippi, have been evacuated and more will move soon.
On Monday morning, before a crowd of onlookers, the Army Corps of Engineers partly opened the Bonnet Carré spillway, allowing some of the river to flow into Lake Pontchartrain and thus relieving pressure as the Mississippi approaches New Orleans.
But that is not likely to be enough, and corps officials have requested permission from the Mississippi River Commission, a federal advisory agency, to open the Morganza spillway in Louisiana. That spillway has been opened only once, in 1973, and even a partial opening would result in widespread flooding that would affect thousands of people in parts of southern Louisiana.
“It’s not a light decision,” said Bob Anderson, a corps spokesman, adding that certain measurements on the river would determine if and when the opening should take place. But, he said, “it’s the way the system was designed.”
Parish officials have been going door to door in communities that would flood, urging residents to move to higher ground.
But on Monday, the crest was having its moment in Memphis, bringing out-of-town gawkers and businesspeople on their lunch breaks to the riverfront to watch the river as it made its lazy way through town.
Even some whose homes sit in uneasy proximity to the floodwaters insisted on a front-row seat.
Cornelius Holliday, 62, who still lives in the house on North Stonewall Street where he was born and raised, said he was not about to move out now.
The Wolf River has settled into his backyard, where it has swallowed an old Chevy Corsica and the makeshift kennel for his hunting dogs.
Two beagles, a coon hound and two 8-month-old puppies have been evacuated, Mr. Holliday said, and if the Wolf makes a move toward the house, he will box things up and wait it out with his wife in the attic.
“When that water started to come, I put spikes in the ground,” he said. “I did my own measurement.” It was, he discovered, as high as forecasters were saying.
“In 62 years,” he said, “I’ve never seen it that bad.”