Without much attention, the city of Memphis, Tennessee has been inundated by flooding for over a week, and the worst could be yet to come. Forecasters now believe that the Mississippi River will crest today, leading to accelerated evacuation plans around the city.

Mayor AC Wharton said that despite the tightened timeframe, he’s confident that precautions such as door-to-door warnings have prepared the city.

The Memphis mayor said disasters such as Katrina have shown that you can’t simply get the word out by issuing warnings on TV. Authorities spent the weekend knocking on doors to tell a couple hundred people that they should abandon their homes before they are swamped by waters from the rising Mississippi. Wharton said officials are returning to some houses multiple times.

“Door-to-door is a key thing that we’re doing,” he said, adding there are stepped up patrols to prevent looting in areas where people have left their homes behind.

It looks like the crest will come up short of the 1937 flood in Memphis, topping at around 48 feet. So far 1,300 homes have been evacuated. The good response from city officials and the holding up of the levees have prevented a human toll, but there will be substantial property damage.

As the water continues down the Mississippi, the Army Corps of Engineers opened a spillway in Louisiana to relieve more pressure. Angola State Prison north of Baton Rouge is also being evacuated. The water is moving at 2 million cubic feet per second, which means it’s rapidly approaching the terminus of the river, New Orleans.

Once the river crests, the water levels don’t immediately subside. In Illinois and Missouri residents continue to battle flooding. It’s not so much the river itself but the tributaries that have not been able to deposit their water and are flooding over their sides. Those creeks and rivers don’t have the protection of levees or floodwalls.

While the threats to areas around the Mississippi turned out severe but manageable, it would certainly be worse in the low-lying area of New Orleans. Those pumps, still reeling from Katrina, haven’t had this kind of a test since. That’s where this could turn into a disaster. Hopefully there are enough levees and floodwalls in place to save the low-lying towns at the bottom of the Mississippi.

David Dayen

David Dayen