MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Officials hoped that the worst was over in Memphis as the swollen Mississippi River neared its crest there on Monday, while downstream the U.S. government opened a spillway to relieve flooding pressure on low-lying New Orleans.
The river rose to levels not seen in Memphis since the 1930s, swamping homes in low-lying neighborhoods and forcing hundreds of people to evacuate. But officials were confident the levees would protect the city's world-famous musical landmarks, including Graceland and Beale Street, and that no new areas would have any serious flooding.
"Where the water is today, is where the water is going to be," said Cory Williams, chief of geotechnical engineering for the Army Corps of Engineers in Memphis as the river moved to just inches of its expected crest.
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Forecasters said it appeared that the river was starting to level out and could crest as soon as Monday night at or near 48 feet, just shy of the all-time high of 48.7 feet. Forecasters had previously predicted the crest would come as late as Wednesday.
Gov. Bill Haslam said late Monday that even though the river is approaching its crest, the flooding is far from over and water wouldn't recede in some neighborhoods for at least two weeks.
"It's not going to get a lot better for a while," Haslam said of the flooding in neighborhoods near the Mississippi's tributaries.
Haslam said he is pressuring the federal government for disaster declaration for Shelby County, which includes Memphis and its suburbs.
The river was moving twice as much water downstream as it normally does, and the Army Corps of Engineers said homes in most danger of flooding are in places not protected by levees or floodwalls, including areas near Nonconnah Creek and the Wolf and Loosahatchie rivers. About 150 Corps workers were walking along levees and monitoring the performance of pumping stations.
In Louisiana, the Army Corps of Engineers began opening the Bonnet Carre spillway 28 miles north of New Orleans Monday morning to divert part of the river flow to Lake Pontchartrain. Opening the spillway has no impact on homes or businesses.
"We are not going to open it up full bore immediately," said Victor Landry, the Corps' Bonnet Carre operations manager. "It will be a slow release."
The spillway has been opened nine previous times, most recently in 2008. The Corps expects to have about half of the spillway's 350 bays open by later this week and it could be fully opened before the flood season ends, Landry said.
"I think it is very feasible when you see the amount of water coming down the river," Landry said. "We haven't seen these sort of river stages or flows, from what I am hearing, since the Great Flood of '27."
The Lower Mississippi swelled to 80 miles wide in some parts during the 1927 flood, causing up to 1,000 deaths by some estimates and leaving 600,000 people displaced.
Peak flows are not expected to reach key Louisiana points for more than two weeks.
The Corps also has asked permission to open the Morganza Spillway on Thursday to ease pressure on Baton Rouge and New Orleans, which would force evacuations of people and livestock as it diverts water through the Atchafalaya River Basin.
Earlier in May, the U.S. government blasted open a Missouri floodway for the first time since 1937, inundating some Missouri farms to relieve pressure on Illinois and Kentucky towns.
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Through Mississippi, residents were bracing for potential record crests at Vicksburg on May 19 and at Natchez on May 21 and authorities were warning that up to 5,000 Mississippi residents may be forced to evacuate.
Mindful in Memphis
In Memphis, the homes in most danger of flooding were in areas not protected by levees or floodwalls, including near Nonconnah Creek and the Wolf and Loosahatchie rivers, said Col. Vernie Reichling, the Army Corps of Engineers commander for the Memphis district.
About 150 Corps workers walked along levees and monitored the performance of pump stations along what Reichling called the "wicked" Mississippi.
"There should be no concern for any levees to fail," he said in a downtown park on a bluff overlooking the river.
A carnival-like atmosphere pervaded downtown Memphis as people gaped at the river, which had widened to three miles — six times its normal width — in one spot.
The volume of water passing by in one second was enough to fill a large stadium, Reichling told reporters.
For Cedric Blue, the flooding in his south Memphis neighborhood near the overflowing Nonconnah Creek is a source of frustration and anger.
Blue, 39, has watched as the water engulfed three homes on his street, including that of an older woman who had to be rescued in a boat because she had refused to leave. Blue fears the rising water will ruin his house and his belongings while washing away a lifetime of memories that were created there.
Sunday afternoon, a garbage can floated in the high water near his house. Some feet away, the water had reached more than halfway up a yellow "No Outlet" street sign.
He became emotional talking about how he has about 7 feet of water in his backyard and less than a foot inside the house, which his mother owns. They were in the middle of a remodeling project when the flood hit.
Blue said he wants the city, county or the federal government to give him a hotel voucher so he does not have to go to a shelter.Slideshow: Flooding across parts of US (on this page)
"I just want a new life and relocation," Blue said. "I would like the elected officials to come down here to see this with their own eyes and see what we're going through."
Authorities spent the weekend knocking on doors to tell a couple hundred people that they should abandon their homes before they are swamped by waters from the rising Mississippi. Wharton said officials are returning to some houses multiple times.
"Door-to-door is a key thing that we're doing," Mayor AC Wharton said, adding there were stepped up patrols to prevent looting in areas where people have left their homes behind.Interactive: Flooding 2011 (on this page)
Forecaster Joe Lowery of the National Weather Service office in Memphis said it looks like the river is starting to level out and could crest as soon as Monday night, at or near 48 feet. Forecasters had previously predicted the crest would come Tuesday.
Memphis residents have been abandoning low-lying homes for days as the dangerously surging river threatened to crest just shy of the 48.7-foot record, set by a devastating 1937 flood.
Levees in the Memphis area are 58 feet high on average, and the floodwalls downtown are 54 feet.
1,300 homes in danger
In all, residents in more than 1,300 homes were told to go, and some 370 people stayed in shelters.
But while some evacuated, others came as spectators. At Beale Street, the famous thoroughfare known for blues music, dozens gawked and snapped photos as water pooled at the end of the road. Traffic was heavy downtown on a day the streets would normally be quiet.
"I've been on this water 27 years and never seen it this high," said James Gilmer, a boat captain and tour guide on the Mississippi Riverboats cruise line.
The current was moving at 12 miles per hour, more than twice its normal pace of about 5 miles per hour, he said.
The river is "probably the biggest tourist attraction in Memphis," said Scott Umstead, who made the half-hour drive from Collierville with his wife and their three children.
Flood waters were about a half-mile from the Beale Street's world-famous nightspots, which are on higher ground.
The Mississippi's rise there was gradual at about one foot a day, and downtown Memphis sits on a bluff well above the expected flood levels.
Engineers say it is unlikely any major metropolitan areas will be inundated as the water pushes downstream over the next week or two. Nonetheless, officials are cautious.
Kentucky and northwest Tennessee were spared any catastrophic flooding and no deaths have been reported there, but some low lying towns and farmland along the banks of the river have been inundated.
Since the flood of 1927, Congress has made protecting the cities on the lower Mississippi a priority, spending billions to fortify cities with floodwalls and carve out overflow basins and ponds — a departure from the "levees-only" strategy that led to the 1927 disaster.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.