Mississippi River crest rolls south

Posted: 12:21 PM EDT May 10, 2011
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (CNN) -

The Mississippi River has begun cresting at Memphis, forecasters said Tuesday, as attention began turning to flooding concerns in Louisiana and Mississippi.

The slow passing of the bulge of water working its way from north to south along the Mississippi is only the beginning of the end of the siege for Memphis residents, who could be dealing with high water levels into June.

And the struggle is just getting started for residents of Mississippi and Louisiana, where the river is expected to begin cresting next week at levels unseen since 1927.

As has been the case upriver from Missouri south to Tennessee, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is predicting its system of levees and flood walls will hold, keeping the river from inundating the small towns and farms that line its banks.

But the Corps has also opened one spillway, sending millions of gallons of water rushing into Lake Pontchartrain and, eventually, the Gulf of Mexico. And the agency is considering opening a second spillway that could flood populated areas.

The long wait is causing anxiety among residents, who have been posting on Facebook pages operated by the Corps, demanding answers about if, and when, the Morganza spillway -- located on the Mississippi River north of Baton Rouge -- will be opened and what other areas might be flooded.

In Memphis, authorities believe the worst has passed.

"I think we feel fairly confident from the modeling that the water has done what it is going to do," said Bob Nations, director of the Office of Preparedness in Shelby County, Tenn., which includes Memphis. "But I say that with a lot of caution in mind because we don't know that for certain.

The river measured 13.78 feet above flood stage as of 9 a.m. Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service, which had not yet reported an official crest. Water levels could fall or rise slightly, said CNN meteorologist Jacqui Jeras.

"This is a long process that has small peaks and valleys," she said.

The Mississippi is the highest it's been at Memphis since 1937, when it crested at 48.7 feet -- 14.7 feet above flood stage. That flood killed 500 people and inundated 20 million acres of land, said Col. Vernie Reichling, the Corps of Engineers Memphis District commander.

So far, the levees protecting the area have only shown minor weaknesses, which workers have been able to control, he said.

"We design these levees for the worst possible case and them we add two to three feet of freeboard. So what you're seeing today is these levees and floodwalls performing as designed," he said.

The river covered the lowest parts of the city's historic Beale Street and had already forced about 400 people from their homes Monday, Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton Jr. said. Another 1,300 remained in low-lying areas, he said.

One of the Memphis residents in peril was Latisha Bowles. Her neighborhood had been swallowed by flood waters but so far her home was the last one at the waters' edge.

"It wants to come up here, but I've been praying every day it don't," Bowles told CNN affiliate WMC Monday. "I got three kids and I'm not ready to move out of my house over this."

President Barack Obama signed a disaster declaration for Tennessee on Monday, which will help direct federal aid toward recovery efforts in areas hit by severe storms, flooding and tornadoes since early April.

Although the river was cresting, Reichling warned Memphis residents not to assume everything will soon return to normal.

"The flooding is going to stay," he said. "This river is not going to drop below 47 (feet) until early next week at the earliest. And that means all the tributaries that flow into this are going to stay high."

Once past Tennessee, the crest will next target Louisiana and Mississippi, where residents and authorities continued preparations for river levels that could break records set in 1927, when flooding displaced 600,000 people and caused the equivalent of nearly $624 million in damages, according to the National Weather Service.

Forecasters don't expect anywhere near that kind of flooding, in large part because of the network of levees built after that disaster. Now that the Corps of Engineers has opened the spillway north of New Orleans, the state of Louisiana as well as local residents are waiting the decision on whether they will open the Morganza spillway. Opening that spillway would send water into the Atchafalaya Delta to the west and south of Baton Rouge.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said his states' National Guard has asked for at least three days to evacuate the area should the Corps give such an order,

The river's crest was expected to begin arriving in Louisiana next week. So far, 21 parishes have issued emergency declarations, Jindal said. He said 400 National Guard troops were helping prepare for the flood.

Flooding is the last thing needed in southern Louisiana, which is still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, said Lynn Magnuson, a New Orleans resident who submitted footage of the flooding to CNN iReport.

"I went through Katrina," Magnuson said. "I would not wish flooding on anyone, and this city is the last place on Earth that needs any more high water."

Flooding also continued to be a problem in southeastern Missouri and southern Illinois, even though the Mississippi and Ohio rivers have already crested in those states.

Last week, the Corps intentionally breached a levee in Missouri as part of its effort to reduce the pressure on other levees, flooding 130,000 acres of agricultural land over the objection of state officials and some farmers.

"I'm very sad. I look at that and I don't have a home," Marilynn Nally said, pointing to her flooded family farm. "I feel like we're having to suffer for somebody else."

The latest flooding in the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys is largely the byproduct of torrential rains throughout the region. Over one two-week stretch, there was about 600% more precipitation than usual, forecasters said.

The weather appears to be working in the flood fighters' favor. Only minimal rain is expected over the coming days, with daytime temperatures forecast to be in the upper 80s and 90s through Thursday.