MEMPHIS — The Mississippi River crested in Memphis at nearly 48 feet on Tuesday, falling inches short of its all-time record but still soaking low-lying areas with enough water to require a massive cleanup.
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.
The crest is just shy of the record of 48.7 feet recorded during a devastating 1937 flood in Memphis.
The soaking was isolated to low-lying neighborhoods, and forced hundreds of people from their homes, but no new serious flooding was expected. Officials trusted the levees would hold and protect the city's world-famous musical landmarks, from Graceland to Beale Street.
"The levees are performing as designed I'm happy to report," Army Corps of Engineers Col. Vernie Reichling Jr. said Tuesday on CBS's "The Early Show."
Still, the corps' Memphis commander added: "I think we'll breathe a sigh of relief once this crest has passed and is in the Gulf of Mexico."
To the south, residents in the Mississippi Delta prepared for the worst. Farmers built homemade levees to protect their crops and engineers diverted water into a lake to ease the pressure levees around New Orleans. Inmates in the Louisiana's largest prison were also evacuated to higher ground.
Scott Haynes, 46, estimated he would spend more than $80,000 on contractors to build levees around his house and grain silos, which hold 200,000 bushels of rice that he can't get out before the water comes. Heavy equipment has been mowing down his wheat fields to get to the dirt that is being used to build the levees, and he expected nearly all of his farmland to flood.
"That wheat is going to be gone, anyway," said Haynes, who lives in Carter, Miss., about 35 miles east of the Mississippi River. "We don't know if we're doing the right thing or not, but we can't not do it."