HICKMAN, Ky. —People along the lower Mississippi River and its tributaries packed their belongings, and emergency workers feverishly filled sandbags as high water pushed its way downstream Wednesday in a slow-motion disaster that could break flood records dating to the 1920s.
From Illinois to Mississippi, thousands of people have already been forced from their homes, and anxiety is rising along with the mighty river, even though it could be a week or two before some of the most severe flooding hits.
"I've never seen it this bad," said 78-year-old Joe Harrison, who has lived in the same house in Hickman since he was 11 months old. Floodwaters from the Mississippi turned his house into an island — dry but surrounded by water. He has been using a boat to get to his car, parked on dry ground along a highway that runs by his house.
Up and down the river, farmers braced for a repeat of the desperate strategy employed earlier this week in Missouri, where Army engineers blew up a levee and sacrificed vast stretches of farmland to protect populated areas.
Forecasters and emergency officials said some of the high-water records set during the great floods of 1927 and 1937 could fall. On Wednesday, for example, the Mississippi eclipsed the 46-foot mark set in 1937 in Caruthersville, Mo., and the water was still rising, with a crest of 49.5 feet forecast for Sunday.
But because of the system of levees and locks built since those disasters more than 70 years ago, the flooding this time is unlikely to be anywhere near as devastating as it was back then.
"We have a high confidence in our levees, but in the sense of transparency, we have to say that the levees have not been tested," Shelby County Emergency Management Director Bob Nations said in Memphis, Tenn.
Tom Salem, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Memphis, said flooding is extreme this year in part because of drenching rain over the past two weeks. In some areas, Wednesday was the first day without rain since April 25.
"It's been a massive amount of rain for a long period of time. And we're still getting snowmelt from Montana," Salem said.
Tributaries that flow into the Mississippi are, in turn, backing up because the river itself is so high. And they account for some of the worst of the flooding so far.
In Arkansas, a 23-mile stretch of westbound I-40 was closed where it crosses the White River, adding a detour of about 52 miles to the route between Little Rock and Memphis. Eastbound traffic will eventually face an even longer detour, perhaps beginning overnight.