MEMPHIS — The Coast Guard closed a section of the swollen Mississippi River to barge traffic Friday to try to protect a Missouri town from floodwaters.
Farther south, police in Memphis went door to door, urging people to flee nearly 1,000 homes that could be swamped by the mighty river. Emergency workers handed out bright yellow fliers in English and Spanish reading, “Evacuate!!! Your property is in danger right now.”
All the way into the Mississippi Delta, people along the river and its tributaries debated whether to stay or go as high water threatened to soak communities over the next week or two. The flooding has already broken high-water records that have stood since the 1930s.
The Coast Guard closed a five-mile stretch of the Mississippi on Friday to protect Caruthersville, Mo., and said ship traffic could be banned for up to eight days. The concern is that the wake from big boats could push water over a flood wall and into the town.
In Tennessee, where local officials do not have the authority to order people to evacuate, they hoped the fliers would persuade them to leave. Bob Nations, director of emergency management for Shelby County, which includes Memphis, said there was still plenty of time. The river is not expected to crest until Wednesday.
“This does not mean that water is at your doorstep,” Nations said of the door-to-door effort. “This means you are in a high-impact area.” Shelby County Division Fire Chief Joseph Rike said about 950 households in Memphis and about 135 other homes in the county were being notified.
Shelters have been opened, and the fliers include a phone number to arrange transportation for people who need it.
Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home and one of the city’s best-known landmarks, is about a 20-minute drive from the river and in no danger of flooding, spokesman Kevin Kern said Friday.
“We’re on a hill, high and dry and open for business and will stay open,” Kern said.
Water pooled at the lowest end of Beale Street, the most famous thoroughfare in the history of the blues, but it was about a half-mile from the street’s popular restaurants, shops and bars and did not threaten any homes or businesses. Water also swamped a county airport, but the main Memphis airport was not threatened, nor was shipping giant FedEx. The express sorting hub at Memphis International Airport handles up to 2 million packages per day.
Residents and businesses could be dealing with the aftermath of the flood for weeks, because officials said it may be the end of May before flooded areas dry out.
As flooding began in parts of the Mississippi Delta, white-tail deer and wild pigs were swimming to dry land. Yacht clubs were submerged, and floating casinos were closed.
The sliver of land in northwest Mississippi.
In the northwest Mississippi community of Greenville, Ken Gelston was helping pack furniture, photos and other belongings into pickups. “We’re getting our Mamma and Daddy out,” he said. His parents’ home sits on Eagle Lake, which the Army Corps of Engineers expects to rise significantly. “We could have 5 feet of water in there,” Gelston said, nodding at the house. “That’s what they’re telling us.”
A little farther north in Rolling Fork, Miss., the birthplace of McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, tension was high.
“It’s weird,” said Lakeysha Stamps, a waitress at the Highway 61 Cafe. “Here we are today, and everything’s fine. And tomorrow there could be all this water.”
The sentiment was the same elsewhere.
Residents of a well-to-do Memphis enclave on Mud Island, which sits in the river, were getting too much of their beloved surroundings. Rising waters practically lapped at the back porches of some of the island’s expensive houses.
“I’m going to sleep thinking, ‘I hope they don’t evacuate the island and we wake up and we’re the only ones here,’ ” said Emily Tabor, a first-year student at the University of Tennessee’s College of Pharmacy in Memphis.
Emergency officials warned that residents may need to leave their homes as the river rises toward an expected crest Wednesday of 48 feet — about 3 feet higher than Thursday. The record in Memphis — 48.7 feet — was set in 1937.