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Memphis and Baton Rouge brace for record-breaking Mississippi flood

Residents of the Mississippi River floodplain are sandbagging or evacuating as the flood crest pushes south. It will pass Memphis on Tuesday and hit southern Louisiana on May 23.

Mississippi River overflow fills the floodplain, as the US Army Corps of Engineers flies over the region and prepares to open the Morganza Spillway for the first time since 1973. Record-breaking flood levels threaten Memphis, Baton Rouge, and most of southeastern Louisiana.

Ted Jackson / The Times-Picayune / AP

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By Bill Sasser, Correspondent / May 8, 2011

New Orleans

Rising Mississippi River floodwaters have threatened cities along America's longest river and prompted President Obama to declare a state of emergency in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Louisiana in recent days. As the crest pushes south, Memphis and the Mississippi Delta region brace for their biggest flood in nearly a century.

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New Orleans, with still-fresh memories of hurricane Katrina’s storm surge, should be protected by its levees, but river communities across low-lying parts of Louisiana and Mississippi are watching the approaching crest with alarm.

In Louisiana, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is preparing to open two more spillways (this time, without explosives) to divert floodwaters before the crest reaches Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The Bonnet Carre Spillway, which opens every few years to pour excess river water into Lake Ponchartain, will open at 8 a.m. on Monday morning. The Morganza Spillway, north of Baton Rouge, will probably open – for the first time since 1973 – on Thursday, May 12.

Timeline of the Mississippi River flood crest

Jeff Graschel, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Slidell, La., said that the Mississippi River flood crest was moving through southeastern Missouri on Saturday, and will push south in coming weeks. It will reach Memphis on Tuesday, May 10 at 48 feet, putting it within inches of Memphis’s all-time high of 48.7 feet.

The crest will near the Gulf Coast in two weeks, hitting Baton Rouge on May 23 at 47.5 feet, and New Orleans on May 24, he said. Without opening the Morganza Spillway, the crest at New Orleans would be 19.5 feet, just six inches below the city’s 20-foot-high levee system.

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