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.

Eric Thayer/REUTERS
Arthur Burton measures encroaching water as Mississippi River floodwaters slowly rise in Memphis Monday.

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.

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.

The flood was caused by excessive rainfall that made the river span 80 miles in some locations. Arkansas City, for instance, was virtually destroyed, submerged beneath the muddy river for four months. The current levee system was created after that disaster.

John Barry, author of "Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America," says that while the current flood is a long way from the devastation of 84 years ago, it will still poses a threat.

"Let's say everything works perfectly…. You still have several thousand people flooded in Memphis and in excess of 1,000 square miles flooded in the Mississippi Delta and more in Arkansas," Mr. Barry says. "When spillways are opened, you'll have more flooding."

On Monday, a Louisiana spillway – the Bonnet Carre – was opened to divert floodwater from New Orleans as the water moves south past Memphis.

Farmers on alert

Farmers are worried about where the water will go. In the Delta, agriculture is the economic mainstay, and the planting season has already suffered from extreme weather including high winds, heavy rain, and large hail.

The Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation estimates that 900,000 acres – much of it the state's most fertile land – will be affected by the flood. In Arkansas, 300 acres of winter wheat was being harvested green in attempt to salvage it from the river. Rice planting is as much as four weeks behind in some parts Arkansas because of flooding.

After the flood water recedes, which could take weeks, farmers have to evaluate roads, levees, irrigation equipment, and buildings, as well as weigh the costs of replanting and reconstructing eroded fields.

"As the crests move down the river, you still have the potential for a breach on both sides where there is a lot of farmland," says Robert Coats, extension agricultural policy analyst for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, said the flooding is far from over. "After Memphis crests, the trouble could really start for a lot of farmers or people along the river. A river and its danger is a hard thing to predict."

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