Swollen Mississippi poses dire threats

A man helps his wife as they walk from their flooded home in Paducah, Kentucky. Heavy rain has left the ground saturated, rivers swollen, and has caused widespread flooding in Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas. AFP

Police in Memphis, Tennessee, distributed evacuation warnings to nearly 3,000 homes, apartment complexes and businesses that could be in the path of the flood waters seen peaking on Monday.

Water lapped onto Beale Street, site of the city’s renowned music scene, and threatened homes on Mud Island, a community of about 5,000 residents with a theme park. The advancing crest on the Mississippi River could approach or break records set in 1927 and 1937. The river swelled to 130 km wide during the 1927 flood blamed for up to 1,000 deaths and forcing 600,000 people from their homes.

The latest round of flooding in what has been an extremely wet spring after a snowy winter in parts of the US Midwest will force the US Army Corps of Engineers to make more difficult decisions like it did earlier this week. The Army Corps blew up a levee that relieved pressure on towns upstream but inundated dozens of Missouri farms and tens of thousands of fertile acres.

“These are very tough decisions to make. No matter which way you go, somebody is not being saved,” said Northwestern University engineer and infrastructure expert Charles Dowding. Since the 1927 calamity, billions of dollars have been spent raising levees and adding floodways and reservoirs to absorb flooding, but the system has never been tested like this before, officials said.

Tributaries all along the Mississippi River were backing up, forcing people out of their homes. There were mandatory evacuations for three towns in Arkansas after the White River, a Mississippi tributary, eclipsed a 1949 record crest and overtopped a levee.

Oil refineries near the Mississippi River in Louisiana and Tennessee were safely beyond the flood waters, firms said. But barge operators who ferry coal and grain on the bulging waterway were stalled as the US Coast Guard closed a five-mile stretch in southern Missouri.

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