Mississippi Flooding Surges Downriver
LIANE HANSEN, host:
Some residents of Kentucky who live near the Mississippi River are being allowed back in their homes to survey the damage from flood waters that are beginning to recede there. But downriver the Mississippi is now threatening Vicksburg, Memphis and other river towns.
Officials are urging residents to evacuate their homes in low-lying areas in and around Memphis where the Mississippi is expected to crest Tuesday at near-record flood levels.
NPR's David Schaper is in Memphis. Hello, David.
DAVID SCHAPER: Good morning, Liane.
HANSEN: How high is the water now and how high is it likely to go?
SCHAPER: Well, as of late yesterday the river was at about just above 47 feet and that's more than 13 feet above flood stage here in Memphis. It's been rising at about a pace of a foot a day the last several days and that pace is expected to slow a bit now over the next several days. And according to the National Weather Service, Mississippi will crest at about 48 feet Tuesday morning and that's a day earlier than they initially forecast and just below the record flood level established in 1937.
Whether it reaches that high water mark or ends up just below it or even tops it, really, any way you look at it, it's higher now than most residents in and around Memphis have ever seen in their lifetimes.
I caught up with Dawn Dearing, who came across the wide, swollen Mississippi from West Memphis, Arkansas with her daughters to witness what she said is history.
Ms. DAWN DEARING: Oh, we've never seen it like this before. Never, not like this. It's overwhelming. This is what nature can do, you know.
HANSEN: David Schaper, to what extent is downtown Memphis threatened? And about how many homes could be flooded out?
SCHAPER: Well, the water right now is lapping right up to this Riverside Drive downtown. But most of the downtown area is on higher land that should remain dry. There's an elaborate levy system along the Mississippi built after devastating floods in 1927 to protect the city and the people living in and around Memphis.
And the system largely appears to be holding here. There are still a lot of people who are very, very nervous because the system - they've never seen it stressed like it is right now. And they're anxious about whether or not the levees can hold. But a bigger concern to local officials are the tributaries around here that feed into the Mississippi. They've all been well above flood level for several weeks now because of record rainfall.
And now with the Mississippi as high as it is, the water from the Mississippi is actually backing up into these rivers and streams and overflowing their banks into the residential neighborhoods.
I drove by a couple of these tributaries yesterday and where water should be flowing, water actually appears stagnant. And in one case seemed to be flowing backwards because that water really has nowhere to go. Shelby County officials estimate about 3,000 structures or more could be inundated with water.
And authorities have been going door to door along the Mississippi and the tributaries to urge residents of more than 1,000 homes to evacuate to higher ground. Many have heeded that call. They're staying with friends or relatives or are in shelters. Some did not, however, and tried to wait it out. Yesterday at least 10 people had to be rescued or evacuated by boat.
HANSEN: David, is there any good news in the battle against the rising flood waters?
SCHAPER: What the local officials here are saying is that the Mississippi's rise is actually slowing. And that's good news. Instead of it coming up about a foot a day, it's only a few inches. And it's cresting sooner than initially expected, Tuesday instead of Wednesday as first thought. And the levees are holding and that's also good news.
And, you know, there's a forecast for warm and dry weather. No significant rainfall in the next week or so. And that is also helping prevent any surprises of flash flooding or anything like that. So people here in Memphis are still bracing for the worst, but are looking forward now to being able to dry out with warmer, dryer weather ahead.
HANSEN: NPR's David Schaper in Memphis. Thank you, David.
SCHAPER: Thank you, Liane.
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