Memphis, Tenn. The Mississippi River rose Monday to levels not seen in Memphis since the 1930s, swamping homes in low-lying neighborhoods and driving hundreds of people from their homes. 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.
As residents in the Home of the Blues waited for the river to crest as early as Monday night at a projected mark just inches short of the record set in 1937, officials downstream in Louisiana began evacuating prisoners from the state’s toughest penitentiary and opened floodgates to relieve pressure on levees outside of New Orleans.
In Memphis, authorities have gone door-to-door to 1,300 homes over the past few days to warn people to clear out, but they were already starting to talk about a labor-intensive clean up, signaling the worst was likely over.
“Where the water is today, is where the water is going to be,” Cory Williams, chief of geotechnical engineering for the Army Corps of Engineers in Memphis, told The Associated Press.
Exactly how many people heeded the warnings was not immediately clear, but more than 300 people were staying in shelters, and police stepped up patrols in evacuated areas to prevent looting.
Aurelio Flores, 36, his pregnant wife and their three children were among 175 people staying in a gymnasium at the Hope Presbyterian Church in Shelby County. His mobile home had about 4 feet of water when he last visited the trailer park on Wednesday.
“I imagine that my trailer, if it’s not covered, it’s close,” said Flores, an unemployed construction worker. “If I think about it too much, and get angry about it, it will mean the end of me.”
Sun Studio, where Elvis Presley made some of the recordings that helped him become king of rock ‘n’ roll, was not in harm’s way. Nor was Stax Records, which launched the careers of Otis Redding and the Staple Singers. Sun Studio still does some recording, while Stax is now a museum.
Graceland, Presley’s former estate several miles south of downtown, was in no danger either.
“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,” said Bob Nations Jr., director of the Shelby County Emergency Management Agency.
Talking about the river levels, he later added: “They’re going to recede slowly, it’s going to be rather putrid, it’s going to be expensive to clean up, it’s going to be labor-intensive.”
The main Memphis airport was not threatened, nor was FedEx, which has a sorting hub at the airport that handles up to 2 million packages per day.
An NBA playoff game Monday night featuring the Memphis Grizzlies at the FedEx Forum downtown was not affected, and a barbecue contest this weekend was moved to higher ground.
“The country thinks were in lifeboats and we are underwater. For visitors, its business as usual,” said Kevin Kane, president and chief executive of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Sandbags were put up in front of the 32-story tall Pyramid Arena, which was once used for college and pro basketball but is now being turned into a fishing and sporting goods store.
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.
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.
Levees in the Memphis area are 58 feet high on average, and the floodwalls downtown are 54 feet.