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He and his girlfriend took a city bus out, along with his dog.

“It seems like we’ve had a stroke of bad luck,” Mr. Owen said after settling in a shelter. “I’m hoping things will get better. I just don’t know what else to do right now.”

For those on higher ground, it was a different story.

Graceland, Elvis Presley’s Memphis home and one of the city’s best-known landmarks, is about a 20-minute drive from the river and is in no danger of flooding. Water pooled at the lowest end of Beale Street, the thoroughfare synonymous with Memphis blues, but it was about a half-mile from the street’s world-famous nightspots.

And about 100 miles to the north, residents in Tiptonville, Tenn., were hopeful as the river levels began to ebb. Like many other areas along the Mississippi, the town wasn’t completely spared. An estimated one-fifth of the town suffered some flooding, with dozens of homes inundated and corn, soybean and wheatfields underwater.

So far, most towns along the banks of the big river have been spared calamitous floodwaters. Billions of dollars have been spent on levees and other flood defenses over the years, and engineers say it is unlikely any major metropolitan areas will be inundated as the water pushes downstream over the next week or two. Nonetheless, farms, small towns and even some urban areas could see extensive flooding.

As Hickman resident Jeff Jones put it after the levee held: “This was a disaster, but it wasn’t disastrous.”

Since the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, a disaster that killed hundreds, Congress has made protecting the cities on the lower Mississippi a priority. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has spent $13 billion to fortify cities with floodwalls and carve out overflow basins and ponds — a departure from the “levees-only” strategy that led to the 1927 disaster.

The corps also straightened out sections of the river that used to meander and pool dangerously. As a result, the Mississippi flows into the Gulf of Mexico faster, and water presses against the levees for shorter periods.

More than 4 million people live in 63 counties and parishes adjacent to the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers from Cairo, Ill., south to the Gulf of Mexico, census figures show

Janet Cappiello reported from Hickman, Ky. Rebecca Yonker in Louisville, Ky.; Cain Burdeau in Greenville, Miss; Emily Wagster Pettus in Natchez, Miss.; and Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report.