By ADRIAN SAINZ and MATT SEDENSKY
MEMPHIS — 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 FedExForum 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.
Gov. Bill Haslam said late Monday that even though the river is approaching its crest, the flooding is far from over and water wouldn’t recede in some neighborhoods for at least two weeks.
“It’s not going to get a lot better for a while,” Haslam said of the flooding in neighborhoods near the Mississippi’s tributaries.
Haslam said he is pressuring the federal government for disaster declaration for Shelby County, which includes Memphis and its suburbs.
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.
“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.
In Louisiana, the Corps partially opened a spillway that diverts the Mississippi into a lake to ease pressure on the levees in greater New Orleans. As workers used cranes to remove some of the Bonnet Carre Spillway’s wooden barriers, hundreds of people watched from the riverbank.
The spillway, which the Corps built about 30 miles upriver from New Orleans in response to the flood of 1927, was last opened in 2008. Monday marked the 10th time it has been opened since the structure was completed in 1931.
Rufus Harris Jr., 87, said his family moved to New Orleans in 1927 only months after the disaster. He was too young to remember those days, but the stories he heard gave him respect for the river.
“People have a right to be concerned in this area because there’s always a possibility of a levee having a defective spot,” Harris said as he watched water rush out.
The Corps has also asked for permission to open a spillway north of Baton Rouge for the first time since 1973. Officials warned residents that even if it is opened, they can expect water 5 to 25 feet deep over parts of seven parishes. Some of Louisiana’s most valuable farmland is expected to be inundated.
At the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, home of the state’s death row, officials started moving prisoners with medical problems to another prison as backwaters began to rise. The prisoners were moved in buses and vans under police escort.
The prison holds more 5,000 inmates and is bordered on three sides by the Mississippi. The prison has not flooded since 1927, though prisoners have been evacuated from time to time when high water threatened, most recently in 1997.
Associated Press writers Michael Kunzelman in Norco, La.; Mary Foster in Vidalia, La.; Jim Salter in St. Louis and Chuck Bartels in Little Rock contributed to this report.