VICKSBURG, Miss.>> William Jefferson paddles slowly down his street in a small boat, past his house and around his church, both flooded from the bulging Mississippi River that has rolled into the Delta.
"Half my life is still in there," he said, pointing to the small white house swamped by several feet of water. "I hate to see it when I go back in."
The river was taking aim at one of the most poverty-stricken parts of the country after cresting Tuesday at Memphis, Tenn., just inches short of the record set in 1937. Some low-lying Memphis neighborhoods were inundated, but the city’s high levees protected much of the rest of Memphis.
Downstream in Louisiana, inmates were filling sandbags to protect property in Cajun swamp communities that could be flooded if engineers open a spillway to protect the more densely populated Baton Rouge area. Fear was high among residents there.
Jefferson’s Vicksburg neighborhood has been one of the hardest hit in the historic city that was the site of a pivotal Civil War battle. Jefferson refuses to leave, so he spends his days in the sweltering sun watching the water rise and sleeping in a camper at an intersection that’s likely to flood soon, too.
"If you don’t stay with your stuff, you won’t have it," he said. "This is what I do every day. Just watch the water."
Over the past week or so in the Delta, floodwaters along the rain-swollen river and its backed-up tributaries have already washed away crops, forced many to seek higher ground and closed some of the dockside casinos that are vital to the state’s economy.
The state gambling industry is taking a hit: All 19 casinos along the river will be shut down by the end of the week, costing governments $12 million to $13 million in taxes per month, authorities said. That will put some 13,000 employees temporarily out of work.
But the worst is yet to come, with the crest expected over the next few days. The damage in Memphis was estimated at more than $320 million as the serious flooding began, and an official tally won’t be available until the waters recede.
To the south, there were no early figures on the devastation, but with hundreds of homes already damaged, "we’re going to have a lot more when the water gets to where it’s never been before," said Greg Flynn, a spokesman for the Mississippi emergency management agency.
Across the region, federal officials anxiously checked and reinforced the levees, some of which could be put to their sternest test ever.
In northwestern Mississippi, crews have been using dirt and sand to make a levee higher at the Bolivar-Coahoma county line in the north Delta, said Charlie Tindall, attorney for the Mississippi Levee Board.
About 10 miles north of Vicksburg, contractors lined one side of what is known as a backwater levee with big sheets of plastic to keep it from eroding if floodwaters flow over it as feared — something that has never happened to the levee since it was built in the 1970s.
In Vicksburg, the river was projected to peak Saturday just above the record set during the cataclysmic Great Flood of 1927.
Jimmy Mitchell, 46, and his wife and two children have been living in a loaned camper for more than week at a civic arena in Tunica.
"There’s no sewage hookup. You go in a barn to take a shower," said Mitchell, who is from the small community of Cutoff. "We have no time frame on how long we can stay."
As Mitchell and friends sat outside chatting in the breeze, children rode bikes nearby.
"Cutoff is a community where everybody lives from paycheck to paycheck. It’s also a community where everybody sticks together," Mitchell said.
Widespread flooding was expected along the Yazoo River, a tributary that is backed up because of the bloated Mississippi. Rolling Fork, home of the bluesman Muddy Waters, was also in danger of getting inundated.
Farmers built homemade levees to protect their corn, cotton, wheat and soybean crops, but many believed the crops would be lost entirely.
Vicksburg National Military Park, where thousands of Civil War soldiers who died in an 1863 battle are buried, was expected to remain dry. The park is the site where Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s troops entrapped a Confederate army under Lt. Gen. John Pemberton, forcing its surrender. The victory effectively split the Confederacy in half.
Vicksburg was forecast to see its highest river level ever, slightly above the 56.2-feet mark set in 1927. Farther south in Natchez, forecasters said the 1937 record could be shattered by 4 feet on Saturday.
The Mississippi crested in Memphis at nearly 48 feet, just short of its all-time record of 48.7.
Some homes had polluted floodwaters near their first-floor ceilings, while others were completely submerged. Snakes and other creatures slithered in the foul water, and officials warned of bacteria. Nearly 500 people in Memphis were in shelters.
The passing of the crest was of little consolation for many.
"It doesn’t matter. We’ve already lost everything," said Rocio Rodriguez, 24, who has been at a shelter for 12 days with her husband and two young children since their trailer park flooded.
On the downtown Memphis riverfront, people came out to gawk at the river. High-water marks were visible on concrete posts, indicating that the level was dropping slowly.
"It could have been a lot worse. Levees could have broke," said Memphis resident Janice Harbin, 32. "I’m very fortunate to stand out here and see it — and not be a victim of the flood."
In Louisiana, jail inmates filled sandbags to protect property in St. Martin Parish, which could be flooded if authorities open a second floodway to take pressure off levees that protect Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
On Monday, the corps began opening the Bonnet Carre spillway near New Orleans. The second floodway, Morganza, is upriver from Baton Rouge and could be opened this weekend.
The floodway pours into the Atchafalaya River, and on to the Gulf of Mexico. Communities such as Morgan City on its southern end were sandbagging against the expected floodwaters, and hoping for the best.
"Everybody is just scared. They don’t know what to do," said St. Martin Deputy Sheriff Ginny Higgins, who was overseeing prisoners who stuffed sandbags in stifling heat and humidity while clad in black and white striped jumpsuits.
Sharonda Buck, an unemployed 18-year-old mother, lives in a house with 12 relatives in Vicksburg. The water has been creeping into their yard and the power company said electricity will be cut off Wednesday morning. They spent Tuesday walking the railroad tracks through their neighborhood, kids throwing rocks in flooded yards.
"I really don’t know what we’re going to do. We’re trying to find somewhere to stay, that’s all I know," she said.
Mohr reported from Vicksburg, Miss. Associated Press writers Alan Sayre in New Orleans; Randall Dickerson in Nashville, Tenn., and Adrian Sainz in Memphis, Tenn., contributed to this report. AP video journalist Jason Bronis contributed from Memphis.