The Mississippi rose toward the highest level ever in the river city, flooding pockets of low-lying neighborhoods and forcing more than 1,000 people from their homes, though the water was not threatening the music heartland’s most recognizable landmarks, from Graceland to Beale Street.
As residents waited for the river to reach its peak as early as Monday night – several inches short of the record mark set in 1937 – those downstream in Mississippi and Louisiana evacuated prisoners and diverted water from the river in an attempt to stave off catastrophic flooding that has a long history of hitting the area.
In Memphis, emergency officials were confident the levees would hold, but warned the river was still dangerous and unpredictable. However, there were no plans for more evacuations, and areas like Elvis Presley’s home were safe.
“I want to say this: Graceland is safe. And we would charge hell with a water pistol to keep it that way and I’d be willing to lead the charge,” said Bob Nations Jr., director of the Shelby County Emergency Management Agency.
Authorities spent the weekend knocking on doors to tell a couple hundred more people that they should abandon their homes before they are swamped by waters. And officials said they had stepped up patrols in evacuated areas to prevent looting.
“We face a serious event, yes we do. We’re not diminishing that,” Nations said. “We’re gonna live through this for another few weeks and it’s gonna be a nasty one and there are gonna be some dangerous environments to deal with.”
On the horizon, rain was forecast for later, that could bring the danger of flash flooding.
Forecasters said it looks like the river was starting to level out and could crest as soon as Monday night, at or near 48 feet (14.63 meters), just shy of the 48.7-foot mark set in 1937. Forecasters had previously predicted the crest would come as late as Wednesday.
“I’m so glad it’s not going higher. And that’s what I can see from all the gauges,” said Gene Rench, a hydrologist with National Weather Service.
Memphis residents have been abandoning low-lying homes for days as the dangerously surging river. The swollen river has already swamped houses in Memphis.
Aurelio Flores, 36, his pregnant wife and their three children have been living at a shelter for 11 days. His mobile home had about four feet of water when he last visited the trailer park Wednesday.
“I imagine that my trailer, if it’s not covered, it’s close,” said Flores, an out-of-work construction worker. “If I think about it too much, and get angry about it, it will mean the end of me.”
But while some evacuated, others came as spectators. At Beale Street, the famous thoroughfare known for blues music, dozens gawked and snapped photos Sunday as water pooled at the end of the road. Traffic was heavy downtown on a day the streets would normally be quiet.
The river is “probably the biggest tourist attraction in Memphis,” said Scott Umstead, who made the half-hour drive from Collierville with his wife and their three children.
Col. Vernie Reichling, Army Corps of Engineers commander for the Memphis district, said the homes in most danger of flooding are in areas not protected by levees or floodwalls, including near Nonconnah Creek and the Wolf and Loosahatchie rivers.
Flood waters were about a half-mile (800 meters) from the Beale Street’s world-famous nightspots, which are on higher ground.
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