MEMPHIS, Tenn. >> Tourists gathered along Beale Street and gawkers snapped photos of the rising Mississippi, even as more residents were told Sunday to flee their homes and the river’s crest edged toward the city, threatening to soak greater pockets of the city.
Officials went door-to-door, 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.
The Mississippi 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 big river have been inundated with water. And there’s tension farther south in the Mississippi Delta and Louisiana, with the river’s crest continuing a lazy pace, leaving behind what could be a slow-developing disaster.
Shirley Woods, who lives in south Memphis, wakes up each day and decides whether to leave. She was barbecuing ribs, chicken, pork chops and hot dogs with relatives on Mother’s Day, despite floodwaters that are just feet from her house.
"My sister called this morning and asked about the flood," Woods said. "I’ll give it another day, and if it comes up much higher, we’re getting out of here."
Jittery Memphis residents have been abandoning low-lying homes for days as the dangerously surging river threatened to crest at 48 feet, just shy of a 48.7-foot record of a devastating 1937 flood.
Record river levels, some dating as far back as the 1920s, have already been broken in some areas upstream. Heavy rains and snowmelt have been blamed for swelling the big river, and there’s so much water in the Mississippi, the tributaries that feed into it are also backed up, creating some of the worst flood problems so far.
At Beale Street, the famous drag known for blues, water pooled at the end of the road, and dozens gathered to catch a glimpse.
Scott Umstead, his wife and their three children made the half-hour drive from the eastern Collierville. He has never seen the river so high and marveled at the other gawkers.
Tourists typically flock here in May for a music festival or barbecue championship, but the river had the area buzzing this year.
"It’s probably the biggest tourist attraction in Memphis," Umstead said.
The water on Beale Street was about a half-mile from the world-famous nightspots, which are on much higher ground.
Kim Mueller, and her husband Lloyd were taking pictures of the river from an elevated walking bridge that runs parallel to the river. The Brentwood, Tenn., couple came to Memphis to watch their son play in a rugby tournament and were stopping by the river on their way out of town.
"If it was my house, I would be devastated," said Kim Mueller, whose home was spared last year during the Nashville floods, which inundated parts of downtown and many low-lying neighborhoods.
She thought the wide river looked peaceful. "It’s just awesome," she said.
Not everyone was as happy.
Cedric Blue’s south Memphis neighborhood was near the overflowing Nonconnah Creek. He has watched as the water engulfed three homes on his street. Blue has lived in his one-story house since he was born, and he fears the rising water will wash away a lifetime of memories.
He was angry that he hadn’t seen any officials in his neighborhood.
"I just want a new life and relocation," Blue said as a garbage can floated in the high water near his house and a yellow "No Outlet" street sign was nearly covered. "I would like the elected officials to come down here to see this with their own eyes and see what we’re going through."
Downriver in 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 vital Morganza spillway, northwest of Baton Rouge, could be opened as early as Thursday although a decision has not yet been made.
A separate spillway northwest of New Orleans was to be opened Monday, helping ease the pressure on levees there, and inmates were set to be evacuated from the low-lying state prison in Angola.
Engineers say it is unlikely any major metropolitan areas will be inundated as the water pushes downstream over the next week or two. Nonetheless, officials are cautious.
Since the flood in 1927, a disaster that killed hundreds, Congress has made protecting the cities on the lower Mississippi a priority, spending billions to fortify cities with floodwalls and carve out overflow basins and ponds — a departure from the "levees-only" strategy that led to the 1927 disaster.