Mississippi River crests in Memphis

Mississippi River crests in Memphis

Posted: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 9:11 pm

MEMPHIS (AP) — The Mississippi River crested in Memphis at nearly 48 feet on Tuesday, falling short of its all-time record but still soaking low-lying areas with enough water to require a massive cleanup. To the South, residents in the Mississippi Delta prepared for the worst.
National Weather Service meteorologist Bill Borghoff says the river reached 47.85 feet at 2 a.m. Tuesday and is expected to stay very close to that level for the next 24 to 36 hours. Hitting the high point means things shouldn’t get worse in the area, but it will take weeks for the water to recede and much longer for inundated areas to recover.
“Pretty much the damage has been done,” Borghoff said.
In states downstream, farmers built homemade levees to protect their crops and engineers diverted water into a lake to ease the pressure on levees around New Orleans. Inmates in Louisiana’s largest prison were also evacuated to higher ground.
The Memphis crest is below the record of 48.7 feet recorded during a devastating 1937 flood.
The soaking was isolated to low-lying neighborhoods and forced hundreds of people from their homes, but no new serious flooding was expected. Officials trusted the levees would hold and protect the city’s world-famous musical landmarks, from Graceland to Beale Street.
“The levees are performing as designed, I’m happy to report,” Army Corps of Engineers Col. Vernie Reichling Jr. said Tuesday on CBS’s “The Early Show.”
Still, the corps’ Memphis commander added: “I think we’ll breathe a sigh of relief once this crest has passed and is in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Shelby County and four other surrounding counties were declared disaster areas by President Obama late Monday. The designation means they’ll be eligible for federal disaster aid, which local officials say is much-needed.
Bob Nations Jr., director of the Shelby County Emergency Management Agency, described on Monday what he expects to be the slow and costly retreat by the high water: “They’re going to recede slowly, it’s going to be rather putrid, it’s going to be expensive to clean up, it’s going to be labor-intensive.”
On the downtown Memphis riverfront, people came out to gaze into the river. By Tuesday morning, high-water marks were visible on concrete posts, indicating that water levels had decreased slightly.
“It could have been a lot worse. Levees could have broke,” said Memphis resident Janice Harbin, 32. “I’m very fortunate to stand out here and see it — and not be a victim of the flood.”
Still, the slow-moving disaster was headed downstream to Mississippi, where residents were bracing themselves.
Scott Haynes, 46, estimated he would spend more than $80,000 on contractors to build levees around his house and grain silos, which hold 200,000 bushels of rice that he can’t get out before the water comes.
Heavy equipment has been mowing down his wheat fields to get to the dirt that is being used to build the levees, and he expected nearly all of his farmland to flood.
“That wheat is going to be gone, anyway,” said Haynes, who lives in Carter, Miss., about 35 miles east of the Mississippi River. “We don’t know if we’re doing the right thing or not, but we can’t not do it.”
He knows time is not on his side. “I’ve got to get back on that dozer,” he said, before walking away.
Nearby, Ed Jordan pointed to a high-water mark of about seven feet in the family’s old general store left by the deadly flood of 1927. Floods have taken crops since then, but the Mississippi River hasn’t swamped their homes in generations.
He was afraid it will happen this time. “We have 400 acres of beautiful wheat that’s almost ready for harvest. We have about a thousand acres of corn that’s chest high and just waiting on a combine (to harvest it). That’s going to be gone,” Jordan said.
“I don’t know what is going to happen to our houses.”

Published in The Messenger 5.11.11

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