Mississippi river reaches peak

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The Mississippi River has peaked at just under 48ft (14.6m) in the southern US city of Memphis, the US national weather service has said. The city is coping with flood levels not seen since the 1930s, which have forced people from some 1,300 homes. Officials warn that it could take weeks for the floodwater, caused by melting snow and heavy rains, to recede.

“It’s not going to get a lot better for a while”, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam said. Officials said the water was expected to remain at peak levels for the next day. “Pretty much the damage has been done”, National Weather Service meteorologist Bill Borghoff told the Associated Press.

Officials said the system of levees protecting Memphis from worse damage appeared to have held, but Col Vernie Reichling Jr of the US Army Corps of Engineers said: “We’ll breathe a sigh of relief once this crest has passed and is in the Gulf of Mexico.” Authorities have also warned residents to look out for snakes and rats which could seek shelter on higher ground.

Officials downstream in Louisiana have begun evacuating prisoners from one of the state’s toughest prisons (the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola) and opened floodgates to relieve pressure on levees outside New Orleans. Police in Memphis have gone door-to-door to 1,300 homes over the past few days to warn people about the rising water levels. More than 300 people were staying in shelters on Monday, and police increased their presence in evacuated areas to prevent looting.

The previous record river height of 48.7ft was set in February 1937 during one of the worst Mississippi floods in US history. In central Memphis, the river had swollen to three miles (4.8km) wide from its typical width of half a mile, the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper reported on Monday.

Further inland, Graceland (the famous home of rock and roll legend Elvis Presley) was out of harm’s way, as was Beale Street (a Blues music tourist attraction).

Engorged by the spring thaw, the Mississippi has caused significant flooding upstream in Illinois and Missouri. Further downstream in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana, the river has already reached flood stage. The flows have threatened to overwhelm the intricate flood levee system, prompting the US government to open a Missouri floodway for the first time since 1937 to relieve pressure. US officials, who expect to activate three floodways for the first time, blew a hole in a levee last week to open one floodway, inundating Missouri farmland to save Illinois and Kentucky towns. Government engineers plan to open a second floodway, the Bonnet Carre Spillway 28 miles north of New Orleans, to divert some of the river's flow to Lake Pontchartrain.

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