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In Memphis, waters won't roll back quickly

The Mississippi crests just below 48 feet, and officials say it will stay high for weeks. In Louisiana, more spillway gates are opened, and residents of low-lying areas are warned to get ready.

May 11, 2011|By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Memphis, Tenn. — After hitting nearly 48 feet and sending water to the edge of downtown and through some low-lying areas, the Mississippi River peaked Tuesday without swamping Memphis, but officials warned that it was too early to exhale and said the river would be high for weeks.

Downstream, fear of major inundations grew as the river rumbled south through Mississippi and Louisiana, swollen by unusually heavy rains and runoff from melting winter snows to the north. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened 44 more gates to the Bonnet Carre Spillway in Norco, La., diverting floodwater into Lake Pontchartrain. The spillway was opened Monday for the first time since 1973.

The possible opening of the Morganza Spillway, north of Baton Rouge, spurred the lower Atchafalaya Basin to brace for up to 25 feet of water in some areas. Opening the spillway would reduce the likelihood of flooding in more populated cities like New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

Photos: Mississippi River flooding

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said a decision on whether to open the floodgates would probably not be made until Saturday, when the water is expected to reach the "trigger point" of 1.5 million cubic feet per second at a gauge north of Baton Rouge.

He urged the estimated 2,500 people in such towns as Krotz Springs, Butte La Rose and Morgan City to prepare for possible evacuation. An additional 22,500 people could be affected by backwater flooding.

"We know a lot of water is coming our way," Jindal said. "No reason for folks who live in low-lying areas to wait until the last minute."

If there were doubts as to the long struggle facing Memphis, Richard Okulski of the National Weather Service outlined the miniscule improvements anticipated in the days ahead.

On Wednesday, the river was forecast to be at 47.8 feet — the same as its peak Tuesday, Okulski said. By Thursday, it might drop to 47.7 feet; by Friday, 47.5 feet; and by Saturday, 47.2 feet. "We're turning in the right direction," he said, but noted that flood stage is considered 34 feet.

"So it's going to take some time … to get us back below flood stage if all goes well," he said.

Along the riverfront, locals and tourists snapped pictures throughout the day, exclaiming at the river's width but unaffected by the water themselves unless they walked close enough to dip their feet into it.

That wasn't difficult. As the muddy water rose Tuesday, the tourist riverboats that usually sit far from the riverfront's cobblestone walkway bobbed a few feet from shore. The walkway itself was gone, hidden by water that also swallowed no-parking signs, garbage bins and large swaths of Mud Island, just next to downtown.

"I've seen it up a few times, but I've lived here 57 years and I've never seen it this high," said Randall Cain, who came early Tuesday to take pictures. Officials had feared the river would break a record set in 1937, when it crested at 48.7 feet.

In low-lying residential areas, the water has pushed hundreds of people from their homes into shelters and an uncertain future. Suyapa Sandoval's eyes filled with tears as she recalled arriving home nearly two weeks ago to find a note on the door of the family's mobile home in Millington, about 20 miles northeast of downtown Memphis. It warned that the mobile home park soon would flood and they must evacuate.

"I was in shock," said Sandoval, who with her husband bundled their four children, their bed and a few other belongings together. They arrived at a Hope Presbyterian Church shelter at 4 a.m. on April 30 and have been there ever since.

"Most people here seem fine. They're laughing and the children are playing," said her 16-year-old daughter, Silvia. But she said the uncertainty was a constant worry in the shelter. "Where are we going to go? Where are we going to live?" she asked. "I see my parents worrying about this, and it worries me too."

The water remains near the top of their trailer, and roads leading to the mobile home park remained closed Tuesday.

Jack Kelley, the church spokesman, said the river's relatively slow rise had given emergency officials time to issue warnings and set up shelters, averting a major disaster but also making it easy for people not directly affected to miss the significance of the event. "It didn't displace people overnight," Kelley said.

But it could be weeks before people can go home, and before businesses and homeowners can clean up the mess left behind when the river recedes. That will include mountains of debris, as well as dangerous river snakes and even deer pushed inland by the rising water.

"This is far from over," said Bob Nations, director of the Shelby County Office of Preparedness in Memphis.

Photos: Mississippi River flooding

Times staff writer Stephen Ceasar in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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