MEMPHIS, Tenn. - More residents were warned Monday to get out of the way of the raging Mississippi River as it surged toward a near-record crest in its southern reaches, prompting authorities in Louisiana to divert some of the flood waters.
"This is the time to gather all important items and be ready to leave your property," Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell said, noting the river should crest later Monday just inches short of a 1937 record.
There were nearly 400 people staying in Memphis shelters with much of the flooding occurring on Mud Island, a peninsula jutting into the river, and in developments on either end of the city. Backed-up tributaries of the mighty river threatened to engulf more homes.
Memphis, a city of 920,000, was depending on a network of levees and, if necessary, pumps to keep it dry, Mayor A.C. Wharton said.
The warnings contrasted with a carnival-like atmosphere that pervaded downtown Memphis as people gaped at the river, which had widened to three miles -- six times its normal width -- in one spot, while its flow speed had more than doubled to 12 miles per hour .
The volume of water passing by in one second was enough to fill a large stadium, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Col. Vernie Reichling told reporters.
Downtown Memphis was safe atop a bluff and tourist draws such as Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion were far enough away.
An oil refinery in Memphis owned by Valero Energy Corp remained in operation, a spokesman said.
"Graceland is safe. And we would charge Hell with water pistols to keep it that way," said Bob Nations, director of the Shelby County Office of Preparedness.
Damage costs will have to be determined later at some 3,000 affected properties, including schools and businesses, but Nations predicted "it's going to be an expensive one."
Scores of U.S. heartland rivers from the Dakotas to Ohio have flooded following a snowy winter and heavy spring rains, feeding the near-record crests on the Mississippi River.
The river threatened to overwhelm an intricate levee and spillway system erected since historic floods in 1927 and 1937, which killed hundreds.
All the levees along the river should hold up, though the river was rising faster than expected, said Army Corps spokesman Kavanaugh Breazeale.
Authorities Monday opened the Bonnet Carre Spillway to divert some of the bulging river into Lake Pontchartrain North of New Orleans, some 640 miles downriver from Memphis.
"We are not going to open it up full bore immediately," the Army Corps' Victor Landry said.
Opening a separate spillway would force evacuations of people and livestock in the Atchafalaya River basin in south central Louisiana, he said.
Mississippi residents were bracing for potential record crests at Vicksburg on May 19 and at Natchez on May 21 and authorities said up to 5,000 people may have to leave.
More rain was forecast later this week in the region and it could take two weeks for the river to fall below flood stage.
If the rising waters were not bad enough, authorities warned that poisonous snakes, reptiles and rats may lurk in closets and beds, having sought shelter from the flood.
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