Wed, May 11, 2011 - Page 1 News List

Mississippi River crests just short of record high


The Mississippi River crested in Memphis yesterday at a height just centimeters short of the area’s all-time record, but still soaking low--lying areas with enough water to require a massive cleanup.

National Weather Service meteorologist Bill Borghoff said the river reached 14.58m at 2am yesterday and is expected to stay very close to that level for the next 24 to 36 hours. Reaching its 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.

The crest is just shy of the record of 14.8m at Memphis reached during a devastating 1937 flood.

The soaking in Memphis 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.

However, to the south, residents in the Mississippi Delta prepared for the worst. Farmers downriver built homemade levees to protect their crops, while inmates in Louisiana’s largest prison were also evacuated to higher ground.

Scott Haynes, 46, estimated he would spend more than US$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, Mississippi, about 56km 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.”

Nearby, Ed Jordan pointed to a high-water mark about 2m high 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 would happen this time.

“We have 400 acres [162 hectares] 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.”

Meanwhile, Memphis declared that the city was open for business on Monday night. The local professional basketball team played a game as scheduled and a barbecue contest this weekend has been moved to higher ground.

“The country thinks we’re in lifeboats and we are underwater. For visitors, its business as usual,” said Kevin Kane, president and chief executive of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Other popular sites were also spared, including Sun Studio, where Elvis Presley made some of the recordings that helped him become king of rock ‘n’ roll and Stax Records, which launched the careers of Otis Redding and the Staple Singers.

Graceland, Presley’s former estate several kilometers south of downtown, was in no danger either.

Similar scenes played out across the Mississippi Delta, the flatlands that stretch about 320km from Memphis to Vicksburg. Shelters were open and farmers were already applying for federal aid.

In Louisiana, the US Army Corps of Engineers partially opened a spillway that diverted the Mississippi into a lake to ease pressure on the levees in greater New Orleans. As workers used cranes to remove some of the Bonnet Carre Spillway’s wooden barriers, hundreds of people watched from the riverbank.

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