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Mississippi River nears crest in Memphis, but concern shifts south

Mississippi River floodwaters might pose more of a threat to the Delta region south of Memphis than they do to Memphis itself. In the Delta, the flood brings back memories of 1927.

By Suzi ParkerCorrespondent / May 9, 2011

Arthur Burton measures encroaching water as Mississippi River floodwaters slowly rise in Memphis Monday.

Eric Thayer/REUTERS

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Little Rock, Ark.

As the country watches Memphis in anticipation of floodwaters set to crest as high as 52 feet Tuesday, perhaps the greater concern is downriver along the flat, farmland Delta areas of Arkansas and Mississippi seen as being more vulnerable.

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Memphis's situation on a bluff means that much of the city – including the city center – is largely protected from the Mississippi's rising waters. But farther south, levees are the only physical barriers between towns and floodwaters that are expected to crest this week and next.

In Helena, Ark., known for its historic connection to blues music, the levee system is holding, but residents are still taking matters into their own hands.

"You've got people building 14-foot levees around their houses," says Michael Burchett, Phillips County's emergency management coordinator. "They are digging dirt from their own yards with backhoes and building these things around their entire houses."

In Arkansas City, Desha County Judge Mark McElroy is holding town hall meetings to calm anxious residents.

"We're not in any danger here right now, the levees are holding, so I tell people rather than wasting time worrying, they should offer a prayer that it keeps holding," he says.

Echoes of 1927

Many residents of the Delta, a fertile but impoverished area that spreads along the Mississippi south of Memphis, have grown up hearing about the stories of the 1927 historic flood on America's longest river. Songs and books have been written about that event – one of the costliest natural disasters in US history.

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