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Miss. River Crests in Memphis, Flood Worries Head Downstream

May 10, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
The "Mighty Mississippi" more than lived up to its nickname, swelling two and a half miles beyond its banks and inundating low-lying areas in and around Memphis, Tenn. Jeffrey Brown reports on the damage in Memphis and new flood worries for communities downstream.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The flood tide on the Mississippi River reached its peak early today in Memphis, Tenn., at nearly 48 feet, just shy of an all-time record. But it was hardly the end of the story, both for Memphis and other towns and cities down the long reach of the river.

Water, water everywhere. The “Mighty Mississippi” more than lived up to its nickname, swelling two-and-a-half miles beyond its banks and inundating low-lying areas in and around Memphis. But officials said it appeared the levee system was holding and the city’s major landmarks would be spared.

CORY WILLIAMS, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: We’re going to wait until the water goes down a whole lot more. Then we will take the rest and then we will — we will celebrate success.

JEFFREY BROWN: Part of the success came at Elvis Presley’s former estate, Graceland, one of the most visited attractions in Memphis. It sits on high ground and so escapes the worst.

BOB NATIONS, Shelby County Office of Preparedness: Graceland is safe.

(LAUGHTER)

OK? And we would charge hell with a water pistol to keep it that way. And I will be willing to lead the charge, all right?

JEFFREY BROWN: President Obama declared five counties disaster areas, making them eligible for federal disaster aid. And officials warned that, even if the river has crested in Memphis and its surroundings, it will be weeks before all the water is gone.

The flood tide has built steadily in recent weeks. The snowy winter to the north meant substantial spring snowmelt. And combined with heavy rain, the Mississippi and its tributaries had nowhere to go but over their banks.

Along with the danger of rising water came dangers in the water, bacteria, chemicals, even water snakes, in particular the poisonous water moccasin. Those dangers and more faced a series of towns south of Memphis. The entire riverside town of Tunica Cutoff, Miss., was already underwater. Only the tops of houses could be seen.

Farther downriver, William Jefferson in Vicksburg, Miss., had a plan to keep the water in front of him.

WILLIAM JEFFERSON, resident of Vicksburg, Miss.: As long as I can get out and get more than my feet wet, I just move over to the next little hill and wait, and when it gets there, I move to the next one. So…

JEFFREY BROWN: Despite the flooding at Vicksburg, the National Military Park, where thousands of Civil War soldiers are buried, was expected to remain dry.

The National Weather Service projected the river won’t crest at Vicksburg until May 19, and at Baton Rouge, La. on May 23. Records that go back more than 80 years are expected to be broken.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had already opened the Bonnet Carre Spillway to ease pressure on the levees at New Orleans. The water was being diverted into Lake Pontchartrain.

GOV. BOBBY JINDAL, R-La.: We have all lived through Katrina. We have seen systems that were supposed to work that didn’t work. So, it’s good to get ready for that. It’s absolutely responsible to get ready for that.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Army Corps has sought permission to open a second spillway, this one north of Baton Rouge, for the first time since 1973.