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Southern towns brace for floods

Mississippi River flooding to be a long-term challenge for southern states

BY JOHN PAPE | HOUSTON, TX | May 10, 2011

"We're gonna live through this for another few weeks and it's gonna be a nasty one and there are gonna be some dangerous environments to deal with."

—Bob Nations Jr., Shelby County Emergency Management Agency

The flood-swollen Mississippi River is expected to crest in Memphis on Tuesday at or near the record level set in 1937.

Even as Memphis waits for the worst to pass, states downstream like Mississippi and Louisiana are bracing for the worst.

As of late Monday, a number of lower-lying Memphis neighborhoods had been flooded, triggering the evacuation several hundred residents.

While water began to encroach on parts of legendary Beale Street, other Memphis musical landmarks like Sun Records and Graceland are expected to be safe.

The crest is expected to be at 48 feet on Tuesday. The all-time record in Memphis from the 1937 flood is 48.7 inches.

The current flood already marks the first time since 1937 the river has risen beyond 41 feet.

Since much of downtown is located on a bluff, and other parts of the city are protected by levees, emergency management officials say they do not believe the Memphis’ most beloved tourist destination Elvis’ Graceland home and gravesite is not in danger.

“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.

Still, Nations stressed, that does not mean the danger to the city had passed.

“We face a serious event; we’re not diminishing that," he told reporters. "We're gonna live through this for another few weeks and it's gonna be a nasty one and there are gonna be some dangerous environments to deal with.”

The swollen Mississippi also a major Memphis tourist attraction was being patrolled by the U.S. Coast Guard, while local police were patrolling flooded neighborhoods around the city in johnboats.

So far, the Coast Guard said, they have not been called for any water rescues, but remain concerned about the number of gawkers the flooded river has attracted.

While river rescues have not been needed, the Coast Guard was called in to help local firefighters move training equipment to safety, USCG Lt. Brian Miller said.

“Our crews are on immediate call for any request from local officials to respond to flood waters,” Miller said. “We were requested by the Memphis Fire Academy to assist with moving some critical equipment to higher ground, out of flood water.”

Floodwaters were also reported “within feet” of a Valero oil refinery and are expected to at least partially swamp the facility before beginning to recede.

In downtown Memphis, the river was reported to be three miles wide. It is normally a half-mile wide.

Col. Vennie Reichling of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers put the massive amount of water flowing through the western edge of the city into perspective by comparing it to filling a football field.

“The water that we’re seeing coming by is moving at two million cubic feet per second. To use an analogy, in one second that water would fill a football field 44 feet deep,” Reichling said.

Reichling also said he was not concerned that any of the city’s protective levees would fail, noting the Army Corps has as many as 150 engineers inspecting levees and floodwalls on an ongoing basis.

A shelter assistance center was established at the Raleigh Springs Mall. Shelby County spokesman Steve Shular said roughly 400 people had sought assistance at the center, and 379 people were staying at three of the four available shelters.

According to the latest update provided by the Shelby County Office of Preparedness, no one is being allowed in the park along Island Drive on Mud Island due to the rising flood waters. The river is dangerously close to areas used for recreation and emergency managers do not want vehicles or their drivers to become trapped by rising floodwaters.

Updated flood projection maps show an additional 243 properties that will likely be affected by flood waters. The locations are near rivers and creeks that branch off the Mississippi River. Law enforcement officers were leaving flyers at those residences, urging people to be ready to evacuate if necessary.

During an afternoon preparedness briefing, Memphis Humane Society Director of Operations John Robinson said even pets have become victims of the rising Mississippi. As of 4:30 p.m. Monday, Robinson said 100 animals had been rescued from flood waters including 65 dogs, 18 cats, 15 puppies and, somewhat surprisingly, two ducks.

“The last thing you think you'd have to evacuate would be ducks or fish,” Robinson said.

As emergency officials continued to monitor the river, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, Jr., urged residents to remain calm and helpful.

“Our community is facing what could be a large-scale disaster. All of the mayors in the towns and cities throughout our county are staying in close contact with each other,” Luttrell said. “Additionally, we are routinely updating Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and other state and federal officials about the flood. They assure us we’ll have all available resources for our community.”

Luttrell went on to say “hundreds of people” had been assisting emergency responders.

“I appreciate their willingness to fill sandbags, work at shelters, prepare food and keep our information hotline staffed at the emergency operations center. Their sprit of volunteering continues to inspire those of us here in Shelby County and others across the nation,” Luttrell said.

Even as Memphis bore the brunt of the flooding, communities downstream began preparations for the water headed their way. Some four million people live in areas that are expected to be impacted by the Mississippi floods in the next week.

On Monday, the Mississippi Department of Transportation began warning residents of expected road closures.

MDOT said it was working with the Corps of Engineers to provide information regarding expected impact of floodwaters and to update its list of roadways that will be inundated.

“The reports we’re getting from the Corps of Engineers and (Mississippi Emergency Management Agency) indicate that the rising waters are not slowing down any time soon,” Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall said. “I encourage everyone in the areas likely to flood to heed our warnings, secure your belongings and evacuate while you can. The rising water will make many routes impassable.”

In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal met with state leaders, the National Weather Service and the Corps of Engineers to discuss preparations. Jindal asked the Corps to publicly release a map illustrating what areas would be impacted by the opening of the Morganza Spillway to divert water away from population centers like Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Located near Morganza, La., the Morganza Spillway is a floodway used to divert water from the Mississippi through the Atchafalaya Basin, away from heavily-populated areas and into the Gulf of Mexico.

The Corps said the spillway could be opened as early as next Thursday.

“The Corps showed us today a map of the area that would be impacted by the opening of the Morganza Spillway and we encouraged them to release this to the public to give people time to leave that area and make plans to stay somewhere else. They told us the decision to open the spillway could be made by next Thursday, which would give us the early part of next week to make sure and get the word out to residents that they need to leave the area impacted by the possible opening of the spillway,” Jindal said.

Jindal also said the flooding was expected to be a long-term problem for Louisiana.

“To give you an order of magnitude for the rising river levels, a Corps official with us yesterday in North Louisiana said that it could be as late as July before the water returns to normal levels following the crest point. We also asked for a model of backwater flooding as well, in addition to the flooding they project from the opening of the Morganza Spillway,” Jindal said.

Before the spillway is opened, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development will close a portion of Louisiana Hwy. 1 that crosses the structure to perform a safety inspection

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