Memphis-area residents warned of Mississippi flooding

MEMPHIS, Tennessee Mon May 9, 2011 5:44am EDT

A man stands in front of a partially submerged house as floodwaters slowly rise in Memphis, Tennessee May 8, 2011. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

A man stands in front of a partially submerged house as floodwaters slowly rise in Memphis, Tennessee May 8, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Eric Thayer

MEMPHIS, Tennessee (Reuters) - Emergency officials on Sunday warned another 200 homeowners in the Memphis area they are at risk of dangerous flooding as the region braces for the highest Mississippi River crest since 1937.

The Mississippi River, swollen with winter snow melt and rain, is carrying near record flows slowly south to New Orleans where the crest may be at least two weeks away.

The river is projected to crest at Osceola, Arkansas, early on Monday and projected to crest on Tuesday in Memphis at 48 feet, just inches shy of the record.

Evacuation warnings have been issued to more than 1,300 residences in the Memphis area, and officials say they expect nearly 3,000 properties to suffer some impact from flooding.

"By and large, our communities are functioning, but there are dangerous areas," said the Shelby County Office of Preparedness director Bob Nations.

In a small respite for residents, the National Weather Service said it does not expect significant rain over the next several days that would exacerbate the flood projections.

Downstream in the state of Mississippi, record crests are expected at Vicksburg on May 20 and at Natchez on May 22.

Authorities have warned that 3,000 to 5,000 residents may be forced to evacuate due to flooding from the river and tributaries.

A snowy winter spawned near-record crests on the Upper Mississippi this year that reached southern Illinois at about the same time as heavy rain swelled the Ohio River.

The flows have threatened to overwhelm the intricate flood levee system, prompting the U.S. government to open a Missouri floodway for the first time since 1937 to relieve pressure.

U.S. officials, who expect to activate three floodways for the first time, blew a hole in a levee last week to open one floodway, inundating Missouri farmland to save Illinois and Kentucky towns.

Government engineers plan to open a second floodway, the Bonnet Carre Spillway 28 miles north of New Orleans, on Monday to divert some of the river's flow to Lake Pontchartrain.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also has recommended opening the Morganza spillway farther north to divert water to the Gulf of Mexico west of New Orleans.

Activating the Morganza, which has only been opened once, in 1973, since its construction in 1954 -- would force people and livestock to evacuate the Atchafalaya River Basin.

Peak flows are not expected to reach the New Orleans area for more than two weeks.

This year's flooding is set to eclipse numerous crest records set mainly in 1927 and 1937. The Great Flood of 1927 swelled the Lower Mississippi to 80 miles wide in some parts. (Writing by David Bailey, editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Jackie Frank)

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