Mississippi floods appear to hit peak with parts of Jackson under water

(Reuters) - Floodwaters in central Mississippi appeared to hit their peak on Monday, potentially allowing the area around the state capital Jackson to avoid any casualties after the Pearl River reached its highest level in 37 years, officials said.

The Pearl River rose to its third-highest point in recorded history after heavy rains last week filled the Ross Barnett Reservoir to capacity, forcing managers on Saturday to begin releasing water into the river just upstream from Jackson.

The floods submerged streets in low-lying areas, prompting 16 search-and-rescue operations to pluck stranded people from their homes, Governor Tate Reeves said.

Reeves declared a state of emergency on Saturday, one day after the city of Jackson issued a seven-day mandatory evacuation order for low-lying areas.

“After days of rising floodwaters, we do have some positive news to report this morning,” Reeves told a news conference on Monday. “It appears the Pearl River is currently at 36.74 feet (11.2 meters) and we that believe it is expected to be at or near its crest at this moment.”

However, the governor also warned that “we as a state are not in the clear yet” as areas downstream of Jackson could be vulnerable and the pace of the stream would increase as waters recede, making attempts to traverse flooded streets potentially dangerous.

Officials estimated 2,000 buildings including 1,000 homes would be in the danger zone and distributed 156,000 sandbags for people to protect their homes.

Slideshow ( 3 images )

It was too early to estimate the number of damaged homes but there had been no injuries as of Monday morning, officials said.

Only 24 people elected to stay in shelters provided by the state, Reeves said. Frank Elliott of Jackson decided to stay home even though water began to cover his street.

“If the water does come up, I do have a canoe. And I’ll have friends pick me up at the church so I can row around the corner and to the church and go wherever I need to go,” Elliott told WAPT television news.

The river rose to its highest level since reaching 39.6 feet in 1983.

The record peak of 43.3 feet (13.2 meters) in 1979 forced more than 17,000 people in the Jackson area from their homes and placed much of the capital city under water, according to the Pearl River Vision Foundation, a private, nonprofit arm of the local flood control district.

Reporting by Daniel Trotta in New York; Editing by Matthew Lewis