Floodwaters from the swollen Mississippi River were washing over farm fields and towns in the Mississippi Delta on Thursday, forcing scores of people from their homes as the surge of water pushes south.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour urged people to get out if they think there is even a chance their homes will flood.
"More than anything else, save your life and don't put at risk other people who might have to come in and save your lives," Barbour said.
The river level in Greenville, Miss, is already at an all-time high, and the Mississippi is expected to crest there Monday. Emergency management officials said most of the city would be safe and that the main levee would hold.
But large swaths of land have begun to flood. Residents have reported that deer, snakes, wild boar and the occasional alligator were coming over the levee in droves as their habitat fills with water.
"The deer and the wild hogs are running around in the area, right in the city of Greenville. I saw a wild hog early this morning," said Doris Petty, who lives 30 yards from the levee.
In the tiny Mississippi town of Rena Lara, population 500, officials were trying to assure residents they are doing what they can to shore up the levee to protect them from the river.
"It's getting scary," said Rita Harris, 43, who lives in a tiny wooden house in the shadow of the levee in Rena Lara. "They won't let you go up there to look at the water."
Scores of homes in the Mississippi Delta have been flooded in the past several days, and the crest isn't expected to push past the region until late next week. Even after the peak passes, water levels will remain high for weeks, and it could take months for flooded homes to dry out.
The Delta, with a population of about 465,000, is an expanse of rich soil between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, extending about 200 miles from Memphis, Tenn., to Vicksburg, Miss. While some farms in the cotton-, rice- and corn-growing Delta are prosperous, there is also grinding poverty. Nine of the 11 counties that touch the Mississippi River in Mississippi have poverty rates at least double the national average of 13.5 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Much of the flooding has occurred outside the Mississippi River levee system that also stretches from Memphis to Vicksburg. The Yazoo, a tributary that has become backed up by the flooding Mississippi, presents a huge threat to neighboring towns. In fact, amid near-record spring floods, it's the Mississippi that essentially becomes a tributary of the Yazoo.
Many residents of Yazoo City, southeast of Greenville, have already evacuated because of flooding — and the community is bracing for even more floodwater.
"When you get over the west side of town and get up on the levee and look to the west, a lot of areas look like a small ocean — it's just water for days," said county supervisor Van Foster.
"We've had massive evacuations over in the Delta and just enormous crop losses," he told NPR. "You know, the corn is up like 18 to 24 inches in height. And I was in some places yesterday where the corn at 24 inches is already under water."
Paige Roberts, state director of public affairs for the American Red Cross of Mississippi, said it is difficult to predict how many people will be displaced and how much damage will be done because floods are so unpredictable.
"It's so hard to know what the river's going to do, when it's going to do it and then how is it going to affect the backwaters and what are the situations there," Roberts said, adding, "Every day, it's something new."
In the historic city of Vicksburg, thousands of people have been forced to evacuate their homes as the water rushes in.
People in the city's hard-hit King's Crossing neighborhood were critical of what they call a lack of assistance. Almost every house is flooded, and one resident said they haven't received any food or water since the flood.
"In 1973, they had all kinds of assistance. ... This is sick right here," said the resident, who refused to be identified.
While state and local government has made temporary housing available to those in need, many in the Vicksburg area said they don't have access to transportation to go to the shelters or take advantage of the relief supplies that are available.
President Obama signed a disaster declaration Wednesday for 14 counties in Mississippi because of the flooding. Housing and home repairs will be covered, and low-interest loans to cover uninsured damage will be available.
The devastating flooding in the Mississippi River Valley from Indiana and Illinois down to the Gulf of Mexico could end up costing billions of dollars. One economist estimated that the floods of 2011 have caused at least $4 billion in damage — and with water still rising in the Mississippi Delta and Louisiana, the costs could go far higher.
The flooding has wiped out crops and catfish farms, shut down refineries and casinos, and idled barges full of oil, grains and other commodities. Tens of thousands of homes and businesses have been inundated.
Much farther downstream, Louisiana officials were awaiting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decision on whether to open the Morganza Spillway to take the pressure off the levees protecting Baton Rouge and, downstream, New Orleans and the many oil refineries in between. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said Wednesday that residents who would be affected by the spillway opening should assume it will open and should plan to get out of the way.
In Memphis, water levels remained high Thursday, two days after the Mississippi crested just inches from the record high of 48.7 feet.
Many residents said they felt as though they'd dodged a bullet as levees held off the raging river, but several low-lying areas along its tributaries were severely flooded, and water levels are expected to recede slowly.
Marcello Gonzalez, who was staying at an area shelter with his wife and two children, said his mobile home remains under water.
"All my house is gone," he said. "So I have to find another place to live, maybe renting a house. ... We need to find something for my family, you know."
Gonzalez said he and his family will have to wait it out at the shelter until he can find something affordable — and on higher ground.
NPR's David Schaper in Memphis, Tenn.; Sandra Knispel of Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Greenville, Miss.; and Daniel Cherry of Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Vicksburg, Miss., contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press.