MEMPHIS, Tennessee (Reuters) – The swollen Mississippi River swallowed up farmland and threatened river towns on Friday, as record amounts of water tested a network of levees and reservoirs built since deadly floods in the last century.
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 80 miles 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 U.S. Midwest will force the U.S. 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 (hectares).
"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, companies said.
But barge operators who ferry coal and grain on the bulging waterway were stalled as the U.S. Coast Guard closed a five-mile (eight-km) stretch in southern Missouri.
"It's going to be very difficult. We've got barges in St. Louis that need to go south and barges in New Orleans that need to go north," said Larry Daily of Alter Barge Lines Inc.
"DISASTER SUBCULTURE" ERODED?
"At one point in time, people living along major American rivers that flood frequently had a disaster subculture. But over the years that may have eroded," said Dennis Mileti of the Natural Hazard Center at the University of Colorado.
Two spillways North of New Orleans will be opened next week to divert some of the flow to Lake Pontchartrain and into the Atchafalaya basin. Louisiana plans to begin evacuating inmates from the state prison at Angola and Governor Bobby Jindal warned residents to be vigilant.
"If you know your area was flooded in 1973, it's not too soon to think about ... what supplies you might need if you have to leave for an extended period of time," Jindal said.
In Memphis, the river was projected to crest on Wednesday at 48 feet, just short of the 1937 record of 48.7 feet. The Weather Service forecast record crests downstream in Mississippi at Vicksburg on May 20 and Natchez two days later.
"Once we do hit crest, we certainly expect to be near there for a fair amount of time," said Jim Belles, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service in Memphis.
(Additional reporting by David Bailey, Karl Plume, Erwin Seba, Ros Krasny, Tim Ghianni, Kathy Finn; Writing by Andrew Stern; Editing by Eric Walsh)