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VOL. 126 | NO. 90 | Monday, May 9, 2011

Coast Guard Closes Stretch of Mississippi


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MEMPHIS (AP) – The Coast Guard closed a section of the swollen Mississippi to barge traffic to protect a Missouri town from floodwaters Friday as police in Memphis went door to door urging residents to leave nearly 1,000 homes that could be swamped by the mighty river.

Emergency workers handed out bright yellow fliers in English and Spanish that read, "Evacuate!!! Your property is in danger right now."

All the way south into the Mississippi Delta, people faced the question of whether to stay or go as high water kept on rolling down the Mississippi and its tributaries, threatening 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 floodwall 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 Shelby County were getting the notices.

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 two million packages per day.

Kevin Kane, CEO of the Memphis Convention and Visitor's Bureau, said the city has a very busy 10 days ahead with two sold-out Memphis Grizzlies playoff games and the Memphis in May International Festival's 2011 World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. Floodwaters are not expected to affect the games and the barbecue contest, which starts Thursday, has been moved to higher ground.

People and businesses could be dealing with the aftermath of the flood for weeks because officials said Friday that it may be the end of May before flooded areas dry out.

Officials also worried that backwater could flood East Prairie, Mo., not far from where the Army Corps of Engineers blew holes in a levee to relieve pressure at Cairo, Ill., and other towns earlier this week. The problem in East Prairie is unrelated to the levee breech – the town sits in what is known as the St. John's Bayou Basin, where water from 22 inches of rain over the past two weeks is collecting.

It can't drain into the Mississippi because flood gates are closed at nearby New Madrid, where the water crested at a record level Thursday.

"Right now the sun is shining and as long as it stays that way we'll be fine," Mayor Kevin Mainord said. "Our concern is we can't stand another big rain event like we've had over and over for the past two weeks."

Farther south, parts of the Mississippi Delta began to flood, sending white-tail deer and wild pigs swimming to dry land, submerging yacht clubs and closing floating casinos.

The sliver of land in northwest Mississippi, home to hardship and bluesman Muddy Waters, was in the crosshairs of the slowly surging river.

"We're getting our mamma and daddy out," said Ken Gelston, who helped pack furniture, photos and other belongings into pickup trucks in Greenville, Miss.

His parents' house 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."

Burdeau reported from Greenville, Miss. Jim Salter in St. Louis and Travis Loller in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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