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River nears its crest in Memphis, Tenn.

The Mississippi River is expected to reach 48 feet, its highest level since 1937. Graceland, Beale Street and other landmarks are safe, officials say.

May 10, 2011|By Richard Fausset and Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times
  • The rain-swollen Mississippi River continued to rise Monday in Memphis, Tenn. Hundreds have been evacuated.
The rain-swollen Mississippi River continued to rise Monday in Memphis,… (Danny Johnston, Associated…)

Reporting from Atlanta and Los Angeles — Memphis braced for the rain-swollen Mississippi River to reach its highest level in more than 70 years by Tuesday, marking what officials hope will be a turning point in the fight against a slow-motion disaster that has flooded low-lying homes and farmland and sent hundreds of residents to emergency shelters.

The Tennessee city's musical landmarks — including Beale Street, Sun Studio and Graceland — should be spared, officials said.

Farther downstream, officials were worried too. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened a key spillway near New Orleans on Monday, allowing river water to flow into Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico. Last week, the corps detonated sections of levee in Missouri, saving towns but flooding farmland.

By 10 p.m. Monday, the great river had reached 47.8 feet at Memphis, just under the expected crest of 48 feet. The record is 48.7 feet, set in 1937 — a historic flood that killed 500 people in several states and inundated 20 million acres of land.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said officials were going door to door to warn of the threat.

"We will be prepared even if it goes beyond" 48 feet, Wharton told "PBS NewsHour." "We have acted all along as if it were right at 49 or 50 feet."

But he emphasized that city landmarks were safe on higher ground.

That included two Elvis Presley shrines: Sun Studio, where the king of rock 'n' roll made his early recordings, and Graceland, his former estate several miles south of downtown.

"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," Bob Nations Jr., director of the Shelby County Emergency Management Agency, told the Associated Press.

Residents in more than 1,300 Memphis-area homes have been told to leave, and about 370 people were staying in at least four shelters, city officials said. Overall, more than 3,000 properties, including 949 single-family homes, were likely to be affected by the flooding in Memphis and surrounding Shelby County, county officials said.

The city has stepped up security patrols to prevent looting, and county health officials warned residents on dry land to watch out for snakes seeking shelter from the floodwaters.

Col. Vernie Reichling of the corps' Memphis district told reporters that the river water was moving at 2 million cubic feet per second.

"In one second that water would fill up a football field 44 feet deep," he said.

Downstream, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency and activated about 400 members of the Louisiana National Guard, who were contacting residents about possible flood threats, inspecting levees and placing sandbags along the banks.

On Monday, locals flocked to the Bonnet Carre Spillway near New Orleans to watch the corps open floodgates in hopes of diverting water from the river. Jindal said the corps may soon decide whether to open a second spillway north of Baton Rouge.

Jindal said that the openings could cause flooding "through many southern portions of our state," and that officials were preparing to assist in possible evacuations.

"Our first priority is absolutely the safety of residents," Jindal said, "and our second priority is to protect property wherever we can."

richard.fausset@latimes.com

michael.muskal@latimes.com

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