As flooding moves southward toward Mississippi and Louisiana, Southerners living in the Delta area are preparing for the worst, particularly the flatlands that stretch about 200 miles from Memphis to Vicksburg. In Louisiana, 21 parishes have already issued emergency declarations in advance of the river’s cresting, expected to begin next week in the state, Gov. Bobby Jindal said from Baton Rouge.
In the meantime, Kentucky and Tennessee continue to be vulnerable.
In a statement released from A.C. Wharton, Jr., the Memphis mayor addressed the damages to his city, indicating that the majority of the flooding still remains in uninhabited areas, but as the waters of the Wolf, the Loosahatchie, and Nonconnah Creek rise, residents must remain on alert.
Though most of Memphis sits on a bluff overlooking the river (and with uninhabited areas drowning), many historic parts of the city are under water, including the city’s famed Beale Street, birthplace of the Memphis blues. Mudd Island and Riverside, near Confederate Memorial Park, residential and popular tourist destinations, are submerged. Mudd Island since May 5.
“Pretty much the damage has been done (in Memphis),” Bill Borghoff, of the National Weather Service, said, though in downtown Memphis, where the river is normally half a mile across, it measured more than three miles wide, making it the worst flood in Memphis in 74 years, and the worst regional floods since 1927, when floodwaters broke out of the levee system, pushing the boundaries of the Mississippi River in Memphis to 60 miles wide, claiming 1,000 lives, and affecting mass portions of Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, and Oklahoma, as well as parts of the Midwest, and pushing tributaries to their maximum capacity, a continuing worry in 2011.
After years of warnings, prior to, and the devastations in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the levees along the Mississippi are holding up, said the Army Corp of Engineers, though tributary flooding still remains a concern.
Despite the success of levees, four hundred Memphis residents were forced from their homes Monday and another 1,300 remained in low-lying areas, where flooding is at its worst, said Wharton Jr., who had begun door-to-door warnings and evacuations of his city.
“We design these levees for the worst possible case and then we add 2 to 3 feet of freeboard. So what you’re seeing today is these levees and floodwalls performing as designed,” Col. Vernie Reichling, the corps’ Memphis District commander, told CNN.
However, the worst seems yet to come.
Record levels of water are expected to hit Mississippi and Louisiana in the coming days, with the most ruthless flooding expected in a week or two, as the river is not anticipated to crest for another ten days in Vicksburg. Evacuation orders have already been issued for much of the historic city, where waters are threatening to swamp its famed antebellum mansions, wash away shotgun shacks, and destroy fields of cotton, rice and corn.
In total, eight states have been affected so far, with President Obama already declaring federal states of disaster in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi.
Flood waters, however, remain just one of many concerns for Southerners. Rising waters in Southern Louisiana could affect oil refineries, and the flooding continues to present health hazards for residents throughout the region. Many of the already overflowing water systems are tainted with farm chemicals such as fertilizers, nitrates, and pesticides, debris, sewage, and other impurities. Such pollution poses risks to human health as well as the marine life in the Gulf of Mexico, where one scientist cautioned of a depletion of oxygen in the waters, posing a substantial risk to aquatic life.
“Right now the Mississippi River is in the process of going through what we call an epic flood,” said Gene Rench of the National Weather Service out of Memphis, who continues to caution pedestrians of perilous situations. “It’s more than historic, it’s more than a 100-year flood, it’s more like a 500 year flood.”
Events could be cataclysmic, the likes of which we haven’t seen in generations, while across the region, federal officials continue to nervously check and reinforce the levees, some of which will still be put to their sternest test ever.
Focus now shifts to preparing areas to the south where waters continue to rise and to rebuilding areas already devastated by flooding. Early estimates put the damage at over $300 million in Memphis alone, with no current estimates for complete regional damage, but it appears catastrophic. Greg Flynn, a spokesman for the Mississippi emergency management agency, anticipates that waters will get to where they’ve never been before, surpassing even 1927, which resulted in massive migration to the North and leaving the South devastated in its wake.