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Memphis Prepares For Historic Flooding

People take a look at Mississippi River floodwaters at the base of Beale Street in Memphis, Tenn.
Mark Humphrey
People take a look at Mississippi River floodwaters at the base of Beale Street in Memphis, Tenn.

Floodwaters continue to rise along the Mississippi River. Already in and around Memphis, Tenn., hundreds of homes are underwater and thousands of people have evacuated to higher ground. More may need to leave their homes in the next couple of days.

The Mississippi River is higher than most people in Memphis have ever seen it before. It is expected to crest Tuesday just under the record high set in 1937.

But the worst of the flooding is along the tributaries, as the mighty river's high waters push a back-flow up those already swollen channels, flooding low-lying neighborhoods.

"The water is behind, it's right behind my house, but it's not up to the house yet," said Anora Brown, who lives in the flooded Frayser neighborhood.

While watching the rising floodwaters creep along a closed section of U.S. Highway 51 near her home Sunday, Brown admitted she was getting nervous.

"It's very, very close," she said. "It's within, let's say, about 12 feet maybe."

But Brown said if the water rises much higher, she's ready to evacuate.

At a low-lying mobile home park, the area began filling up with water Friday.

"My house is full of water," resident Marcello Gonzalez said. "I got my two kids and had to bring them over here, because I don't have nowhere to go."

A shelter was set up in a gymnasium at Hope Presbyterian, a sprawling megachurch east of Memphis.

With 186 evacuees, Hope's shelter is beyond capacity. A few hundred people are staying at other shelters in houses of worship around Memphis. Shelby County officials are relying entirely on the faith-based community to house those displaced by the floods.

"The need is huge," said Michael Leirer, pastor of missions at Hope Presbyterian.

"From what I'm hearing, the river is going up even more, so within a few days or whatnot, we're going to be seeing even more people coming in," he said.

Leirer has been training church members who are volunteering to staff the shelters, more of which could be opening in coming days.

Officials continued going door-to-door Sunday, and have issued evacuation notices to more than 1,300 homes as the flood zones grow due to the overflowing Wolf and Loosahatchie rivers and the Nonconnah Creek.

"They flow east to west, so they normally dump into the Mississippi," said Bob Nations, director of the Shelby County Office of Preparedness. "But now they can't dump into the Mississippi, so they've been backing up all week because they hit that wall of the Mississippi River rising."

Nations said evacuation notices are not mandatory, and some people are trying to wait it out.

"Hopefully, they won't wait too long, because it's much easier to evacuate dry than it is to do water evacuations," he said.

The Mississippi itself has become a bit of a tourist draw in downtown Memphis, with thousands driving over the bridge to Arkansas to view the astoundingly high raging waters, and many stopping along Riverside Drive to see water lapping up to the street.

Col. Vernie Reichling of the Memphis district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the Mississippi's levees in the area are performing as designed, and are holding back the water.

"We will continue to monitor these levees and flood walls very carefully, but at this point, there is nothing that we are concerned about and there is no potential possibility of any failures on the Mississippi River levees," he says.

Nonetheless, Reichling warned that it's still a dangerous flood of historic proportions moving through Memphis, and downriver toward the Mississippi Delta, Louisiana and New Orleans.

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David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.