- Associated Press - Sunday, May 8, 2011

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Some jittery Memphis residents began abandoning low-lying homes as the dangerously surging Mississippi River threatened to crest in coming days just shy of a 48.7-foot record from a devastating 1937 flood.

Record river levels, some dating as far back as the 1920s, were expected to be broken in some areas as the swollen river threatened flood-prone areas of Memphis on down through the Mississippi Delta into rich Louisiana farming country. In Memphis, the river was expected to crest at 48 feet by Tuesday.

Some anxious Memphis residents saw some rain Saturday, just enough to send some packing — and calling the city bus for transportation out.

“Reality has set in, so now we’re getting more calls,” said Alvin Pearson, assistant manager of operations for the Memphis bus service.

And downriver in Louisiana, officials warned residents that even if a key spillway northwest of Baton Rouge were to be opened, residents could expect water 5 to 25 feet deep over parts of seven parishes. Some of Louisiana’s most valuable farmland is expected to be inundated.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said the vital Morganza spillway, northwest of Baton Rouge, could be opened as early as Thursday, although a decision has not yet been made. If it is opened, it could stay open for weeks.

A separate spillway northwest of New Orleans was to be opened Monday, helping ease the pressure on levees there, and inmates were set to be evacuated the same day from the low-lying state prison in Angola.

Meanwhile, there was relief in communities farther upriver after water levels began to recede after days of anxious waiting — and testing of the levee defenses. Heavy winter storms and snowmelt are blamed for the flooding.

In the small town of Hickman, Ky., officials and volunteers spent nearly two weeks piling sandbags to shore up the 17-mile levee, preparing for a slow-moving disaster of historic proportion. About 75 residents were told to flee town. But by Saturday, the levee had held, and officials boasted that only a few houses appeared to be damaged and no one had been injured or killed.

“We have held back the Mississippi River, and that’s a feat,” said one emergency management director, Hugh Caldwell. “We didn’t beat it, but it didn’t beat us.”

Some were left cleaning up mud oozing in front doors and wrecking carpeting and furnishings.

“We just never even thought of it getting this high,” said Karla Fields, who with husband Tony and their 8-year-old son were forced to live on the second floor of their home when the water rose on their 13 wooded acres.

In Arkansas, authorities recovered the body of a man who drove around barricades earlier in the week and was swept away by floodwaters when he tried to walk out.

Wary of such dangers, Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton warned residents in low-lying areas to evacuate.

William Owen, 53, didn’t heed the call until firefighters began to bang on his door Saturday morning at a Memphis mobile home park. Mr. Owen said that when he went to sleep, the water wasn’t that high. By midday, it had risen around the base of his home.

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