Memphis confident landmarks won't flood

MEMPHIS, Tenn. —The Mississippi River rose Monday to levels not seen in Memphis since the 1930s, swamping homes in low-lying neighborhoods and driving hundreds of people from their homes.

But officials were confident the levees would protect the city's world-famous musical landmarks, including Graceland and Beale Street, and that no new areas would have any serious flooding.

As residents waited for the river to crest at a projected mark just inches short of the record set in 1937, officials downstream in Louisiana began evacuating prisoners from the state's toughest penitentiary and opened floodgates to relieve pressure on levees outside of New Orleans.

In Memphis, authorities have gone door-to-door to 1,300 homes over the past few days to warn people to clear out, but they were already starting to talk about a labor-intensive cleanup.

"Where the water is today, is where the water is going to be," said Cory Williams, chief of geotechnical engineering for the Army Corps of Engineers in Memphis.

It wasn't clear how many people heeded evacuation warnings, but more than 300 were staying in shelters, and police stepped up patrols to prevent looting.

Aurelio Flores, 36, his pregnant wife and their three children were among 175 people staying in a gymnasium at the Hope Presbyterian Church in Shelby County. His mobile home had about 4 feet of water when he last visited the trailer park on Wednesday.

"I imagine that my trailer, if it's not covered, it's close," said Flores, an unemployed construction worker.

Bob Nations Jr., director of the Shelby County Emergency Management Agency, said of the river levels: "They're going to recede slowly, it's going to be rather putrid, it's going to be expensive to clean up, it's going to be labor-intensive."

The main Memphis airport was not threatened, nor was FedEx, which has a sorting hub at the airport that handles up to 2 million packages per day.

An NBA playoff game Monday night featuring the Memphis Grizzlies at the FedExForum downtown was not affected, and a barbecue contest this weekend was moved to higher ground.

"The country thinks were in lifeboats and we are underwater. For visitors, its business as usual," said Kevin Kane, president and chief executive of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Gov. Bill Haslam said late Monday that even though the river was approaching its crest, the flooding wouldn't recede in some neighborhoods for at least two weeks.

"It's not going to get a lot better for a while," he said.

Haslam said he is pressuring the federal government for disaster declaration for Shelby County, which includes Memphis and its suburbs.