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Mississippi River crests in Memphis, residents evacuate as flooding spreads

The Mississippi river crested Tuesday morning in Memphis as residents evacuated or braced for the spreading floodwaters. As AP reported:

• The Mississippi River crested in Memphis at nearly 48 feet on Tuesday, falling short of its all-time record but still soaking low-lying areas with enough water to require a massive cleanup. To the south, residents in the Mississippi Delta prepared for the worst.

National Weather Service meteorologist Bill Borghoff says the river reached 47.85 feet at 2 a.m. CDT Tuesday and is expected to stay very close to that level for the next 24 to 36 hours. Hitting the high point means things shouldn’t get worse in the area, but it will take weeks for the water to recede and much longer for inundated areas to recover.

“Pretty much the damage has been done,” Borghoff said.

In states downstream, farmers built homemade levees to protect their crops and engineers diverted water into a lake to ease the pressure on levees around New Orleans. Inmates in Louisiana’s largest prison were also evacuated to higher ground. The Memphis crest is below the record of 48.7 feet recorded during a devastating 1937 flood.

As the Mississippi river prepared to crest a renewed call for different flood prevention tactics was taken up, with many pointing to a Dutch government plan which relies less on levees. As Brian Vastag and Frances Stead Sellers explained:

• Last week, the Corps pulled a trick it had not been forced to use in nearly 75 years: It blew open a two-mile run of a Missouri levee, sacrificing about 130,000 acres of farmland and 100 homes to save the town of Cairo, Ill.

The dramatic trade-off “reactivated the flood plain,” in engineer-speak. It also highlighted limitations in the long-term strategy of hemming in rivers with levees and dams, then pushing farms and towns up against the river walls.

“For decades we’ve treated levees as the only line of defense” against floods, said Andrew Fahlund, senior vice president of American Rivers, which advocates for healthy waterways. “They ought to be the last line of defense.”

In a move that echoes the approach taken by the Netherlands, which has long wrestled with such problems, a nascent movement made up of activists and city leaders victimized by flooding is pushing for “natural river defenses.” They want to set the rivers free, if just a little.

Cities and counties are buying up homes and farms and relocating residents to restore flood plains and wetlands. They’re moving levees back from the water’s edge. And they’re ditching steep concrete channels in favor of gently sloped green spaces.

For those affected by the rising floodwaters, finding sandbags and other critical resources and information can become difficult. As Elizabeth Flock reported:

As communities continue to deal with the effects of the Mississippi’s floods, here are answers to your most pressing flood questions.

What is a levee? When the levee breaks, what should I do?

A levee, or dyke, is a wall that is used to regulate water levels. During the Mississippi floods, levees have been stressed and so rivers have had no outlet, which causes more flooding. If the levee breaks, call 9-1-1.

Where can I find FEMA flood maps?

You can find them on the FEMA Web site. You’ll be asked to type in your state, county, and community so that you can get flood maps for your area.

How can I find out if I’m in danger of a flood?

NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards transmits warnings from the National Weather Service and continuous weather and river information. The NWS Web page also provides forecasts, warnings, and locates where flooding is occurring.

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