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 cleanup, 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.
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.
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 previously had 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 flood walls, 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 flood walls downtown are 54 feet.
“We still have significant room before we even consider overtopping,” Elizabeth Burks, deputy levee commander for the Memphis sector of the corps.
At Beale Street, the thoroughfare known for blues music, people gawked and snapped photos as water pooled at the end of the street. Beale Street’s world-famous nightspots are on higher ground.
At Sun Studio, where Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and a multitude of others also recorded, tourists from around the world continued to stream off buses and pose beneath the giant guitar hanging outside.
“We didn’t really know what to expect,” said Andy Reilly, a 32-year-old musician from Dublin, Ireland, who was in town to perform. “We’re delighted it’s not as bad as we thought it was going to be.”
Because of heavy rain over the past few weeks and snowmelt along the upper reaches of the Mississippi, the river has broken high-water records upstream and inundated low-lying towns and farmland. The water on the Mississippi is so high that the rivers and creeks that feed into it are backed up, and that has accounted for some of the worst of the flooding so far.
Because of the levees and other defenses built since the cataclysmic Great Flood of 1927 that killed hundreds of people, engineers say it is unlikely any major metropolitan areas will be inundated as the high water pushes downstream over the next week or so. Nonetheless, they are cautious because of the risk of levee failures, as shown during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.