MEMPHIS, Tenn (Reuters) - The Mississippi River likely began to form a crest on Monday at a near-record level in Memphis, and downstream the U.S. government opened a spillway and prepared to open a second to relieve flooding pressure on low-lying New Orleans.
The massive Mississippi was expected to take about a full day to form a crest at Memphis at the second highest level on record, just inches shy of its 1937 mark, said John Sirmon, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Memphis.
“All indications are that it is cresting about right now,” Sirmon said after 4 p.m. local time, adding that the river could go up or down an inch or two over the next 24 hours.
The river stage stood at just over 47.8 feet Monday afternoon, short of the record 48.7 feet, and was expected to stay above major flood stage for eight days, Sirmon said.
In the Memphis area, Tennessee officials have warned more than 3,000 properties that they could be damaged by flooding with the Mississippi. More than 1,300 area homes were receiving notices urging people to evacuate until the water recedes.
“It’s going to be a nasty one, it’s going to be an expensive one,” said Bob Nations, director of the Shelby County Office of Preparedness.
The Mississippi River’s rise has been gradual, sometimes under sunny skies, prompting officials to warn the public not to let down their guard. Downtown Memphis sits on a bluff well above the expected flood levels and rock legend Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion sits well back from the river.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. I was born and raised here and it’s pretty crazy to look at it,” said Ashlee Omar, a sales and marketing manager for a blues club in the historic Beale Street entertainment district.
Eastbound lanes of the critical artery Interstate 40 from Little Rock, Arkansas, to Memphis were reopened on Monday, two days ahead of plan, Arkansas transportation officials said. Westbound lanes remained closed.
Since the flood of 1927, major improvements have been made in flood control with the building of dams and levees, reservoirs and floodways that have held all along the river.
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.
U.S. officials expect to open three of the river’s floodways for the first time on record to relieve flooding that has been breaking or challenging records set during historic floods in 1927 and 1937 on the Lower Mississippi.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began opening the Bonnet Carre spillway 28 miles north of New Orleans Monday morning to divert part of the river flow to Lake Pontchartrain. Opening the spillway has no impact on homes or businesses.
The Corps expects to have about half of the spillway’s 350 bays open by later this week and it could be fully opened before the flooding ends, according to Victor Landry, the Corps’ Bonnet Carre operations manager.
“I think it is very feasible when you see the amount of water coming down the river,” Landry said in a telephone interview. “We haven’t seen these sort of river stages or flows, from what I am hearing, since the Great Flood of ‘27.”
The Lower Mississippi swelled to 80 miles wide in some parts during the 1927 flood, causing up to 1,000 deaths by some estimates and leaving 600,000 people displaced.
The spillway has been opened nine previous times, most recently in 2008, and peak Mississippi flows are not expected to reach key Louisiana points for more than two weeks.
The Corps also has asked permission to open the Morganza Spillway on Thursday to ease pressure on Baton Rouge and New Orleans, which would force evacuations of people and livestock as it diverts water through the Atchafalaya River Basin.
Farmers in the affected area said Monday they were resigned to potentially huge crop losses if the Morganza is opened.
Earlier in May, the U.S. government blasted open a Missouri floodway for the first time since 1937, inundating some Missouri farms to relieve pressure on Illinois and Kentucky towns.
Through Mississippi, residents were bracing for potential record crests at Vicksburg on May 19 and at Natchez on May 21 and authorities were warning that up to 5,000 Mississippi residents may be forced to evacuate.
Additional reporting by Tim Ghianni in Nashville, Leigh Coleman in Vicksburg, Suzi Parker in Little Rock and Kathy Finn in New Orleans; Writing by David Bailey; Editing by Jerry Norton