Memphis Flooding: Mississippi River Nears Record Highs

Officials said the mighty Mississippi River could crest later tonight.

ByABC News
May 9, 2011, 1:33 AM

May 9, 2011— -- The Mississippi River continues to rise as it nears record flood levels, forcing thousands of people from Arkansas to Tennessee to flee their homes. Weeks of heavy rain in the region has even forced snakes and other reptiles into residential neighborhoods as they also try to escape the rushing water.

"In one second that water...would fill up a football field 44 feet deep. In one second," said Col. Vernie Reichling, Army Corps of Engineers commander for the Memphis district, at a press conference today. The Mississippi has widened to six times its normal size in downtown New Orleans.

As of this morning, the Mississippi River has risen to 47.6 feet and was expected to crest at 48 feet later this evening, according to the National Weather Service.

Previously, the Army Corp of Engineers expected the river to rise to a record level of 48 feet early Tuesday morning -- the record crest in 1937 was 48.7 feet.

More than 1,300 homes have been ordered to evacuate and another 240 have been warned that they might need to leave. Nearly 400 people are staying in shelters.

In North Have, Tenn., the flood has forced four generations of Charles Hinkson's family to move into his home for shelter. It was supposed to be a safe place.

"We'll be on an island if it continues to rise. In fact, we're already on an island," said Hinkson to ABC News. The police have told them to go, but they won't budge, hoping the water stops rising before they are submerged.

Click here to find ways to help people affected by the flooding.

The Mississippi River has the third-largest drainage basin in the world, absorbing 41 percent of the drainage from the 48 contiguous United States, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. The massive river covers more than 1,245,000 square miles.

The damage has been extensive in places like Memphis, where entire neighborhoods have been swallowed by the water and vehicles completely submerged.

Memphis's Beale Street, known for being the birthplace of blues music, has been inundated with water. Flooding in the city has turned into a tourist attraction for gawkers and a nightmare for residents. However, music lovers can be reassured that the Elvis compound at Graceland is not currently under threat, according to officials.

"All this water, it scares me," said resident Regina Reene.

The levees are holding for now, but government officials are not taking any chances. Homes that are not in areas protected by the levees are in path of potential flooding, Reichling told the Associated Press.

Residents who haven't evacuated are taking precautions by using sand bags.

"It's my house and once everything's over and done with, I would prefer to have somewhere to stay," said resident Sherrica Nailor.

The Nailor's home hasn't been hit yet, but the flood waters were creeping steadily up the street just a block away.

Fearing a breach, some local businesses are tossing out sandbags and replacing them with Tiger Dams, 50 foot by 19 inch cylindrical tubes that can be stacked in a pyramid shape up to 32 feet high and interconnected to form a barrier of virtually infinite length. These dams were also used by BP after last year's Gulf oil spill disaster.

Farther downstream in Louisiana, authorities said a spillway northwest of New Orleans is expected to be opened today to ease pressure on levees, the AP reported.

ABC News Radio, Lauren Vance, Max Golembo and the Associated Press contributed this report.