MEMPHIS – The worst floods to hit the central United States in more than 70 years have swallowed up homes, farms and roads after the Mississippi River swelled to six times its normal width.
Army engineers on Tuesday patrolled stressed levees in waterlogged Memphis, Tennessee, where the Mississippi — normally about half a mile across — is currently about three miles (4.8 kilometers) wide.
Daryl Hissong and his three-year-old son were among thousands of people forced from their homes by the muddy waters of record spring flooding.
They packed up on Sunday and by Monday morning there was five feet (almost two meters) of water inside their home in a Memphis suburb.
“They said it’ll probably be a month before all of this goes down,” Hissong told AFP as he looked out over waters that had swept up to the rooftops of neighboring trailer homes.
Levees and natural bluffs have protected most of Memphis from serious flooding, but those living in the affluent neighborhood of Mud Island were struggling to keep the waters at bay.
The floodwater has already engulfed homes along the shoreline and on Monday broke through a sandbag barrier set up around a condominium on the other side of the road.
“We’re staying and riding it out, I guess,” resident Dawn Watkins said as workers reinforced the sandbags. “I didn’t have any water until just a few minutes ago.”
The Memphis music landmarks of Graceland and Sun Studios on Beale Street have not been affected.
The US Army Corps of Engineers has meanwhile deployed about 150 people to patrol the city’s levees day and night to check for problems, with a spokesman saying they were “very confident that the levee system is up to the test.”
Portions of the Mississippi were closed to shipping and the US Coast Guard opened flood gates outside of New Orleans to help protect the low-lying city as a flood wave makes its way slowly down to the Gulf of Mexico.
“We’re looking at some pretty substantial flooding all the way from Memphis to Louisiana,” said Tom Bradshaw, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
Heavy rains last month filled rivers and creeks already swollen from the melting of a thick winter snow pack, which are now backing up because the Mississippi is so swollen.
It’s the biggest flood in the Mississippi Valley since 1937 and the river is rising above those records in some areas, Bradshaw said.
“What’s helping us is that we have a lot of levees we didn’t have back in 1937 and they’re able to control the water a lot better so you don’t see the massive displacement of folks and literally washing away of towns that you did in the old days,” he said.
But it will still take weeks for the river levels to return to normal and there are plenty of homes which could be lost, particularly in the low-lying Mississippi Delta.
Martin Moss, who lives near Horn Lake, Mississippi said the potential flooding was hard to take after three weeks of tornado warnings and severe thunderstorms which blasted the area last month
“I could use a break from all this,” said Moss as he packed up his possessions and stored them in his attic.
And then there’s the second flood — tourists, gawkers, and amateur photographers whose cars glutted Downtown Memphis streets.
“I can understand their curiosity, but it was really quite difficult,” said Mary Ann Bodayla, who lives on Mud Island. “Even the mailman had difficulty because there were so many cars.”
For others, projecting the damage and knowing when to evacuate has become a numbers game.
“The business behind us started moving merchandise out last week,” said Andrew Tunstall, Jr., manager of the Napa Auto Parts store in Memphis.
A lake of flood water blanketed the acreage behind his store, making islands out of warehouses and rows of semi trailers.
“We’re going to be able to stay put because the river’s supposed to crest at 48 feet,” he said. “If it gets to 50 feet, it will come up to the back wall, but it still won?t come into the store.”
Meanwhile, Governor Steve Beshear of Kentucky said Monday most of the 3,800 people evacuated from counties along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers may soon be allowed to return home and assess the damage.
US President Barack Obama meanwhile declared a “major disaster” in both Missouri and Tennessee on Monday, ordering federal aid to supplement local recovery efforts.