Floodwaters swamp homes in Memphis — but barbecue's on

MEMPHIS, Tenn. —The swollen Mississippi River has swamped houses in Memphis and threatens to consume many more, but its rise has been slow enough that some people were clinging to their normal lives just a bit longer.

That much was clear Sunday from an unexpected smell — barbecue — in a neighborhood that had already lost three houses.

With the river just feet from her single-story home, Shirley Woods had the grill going in the backyard, cooking ribs, pork chops, chicken and hot dogs. She was getting ready to make potato salad.

When she woke up at first light, she was prepared to leave if the Mississippi had gotten high enough, but she decided she had time to at least celebrate Mother's Day here with relatives.

"I'll give it another day, and if it comes up much higher, we're getting out of here," Woods said.

Memphis residents have been abandoning low-lying homes for days as the dangerously surging river threatened to crest at 48 feet, just shy of the 48.7-foot record set by a 1937 flood.

Officials went door to door Sunday, warning about 240 people to get out before the river reaches its expected peak Tuesday. In all, residents in more than 1,300 homes have been told to go, and some 370 people were staying in shelters.

But while some evacuated their homes, others came as spectators. At Beale Street, the famous thoroughfare known for blues, dozens gawked and snapped photos as water pooled at the end of the road. Traffic was heavy downtown on a day the streets would normally be quiet.

The river is "probably the biggest tourist attraction in Memphis," said Scott Umstead, who made the half-hour drive from Collierville with his wife and their three children.

Flood waters were about a half-mile from the street's world-famous nightspots, which are on higher ground.

The river had already reached record levels in some areas upstream, thanks to heavy rains and snowmelt. It spared Kentucky and northwest Tennessee any catastrophic flooding and no deaths have been reported there, but some low-lying towns and farmland along the banks of the river have been inundated.

And there's tension farther south in the Mississippi Delta and Louisiana, where the river could create a slow-developing disaster.

There's so much water in the Mississippi that the tributaries that feed into it are also backed up.

Louisiana officials warned residents that even if a key spillway northwest of Baton Rouge were to be opened, residents could expect water 5 to 25 feet deep over parts of seven parishes. Some of Louisiana's most valuable farmland is expected to be inundated.

The Morganza spillway, northwest of Baton Rouge, could be opened as early as Thursday, but a decision has not yet been made.

A separate spillway northwest of New Orleans was to be opened today, helping ease the pressure on levees there, and inmates were set to be evacuated from the low-lying state prison in Angola.