MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Flood worries that prompted the U.S. government to blast open a Missouri levee to ease pressure on some towns are rippling down the Mississippi River, prompting more evacuations and unease as the Army Corps of Engineers weighs whether to purposely inundate more land with water.
The breach of southeastern Missouri's Birds Point levee was heralded by some Illinois towns along the Ohio River as a needed relief from record flooding, and the man who ordered that action says he may do the same with other Mississippi River spillways as flood prospects mount.
Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh said he understood the frustration at the corps' decision to sacrifice the levee Monday and send a wall of water over 130,000 acres of farmland the state of Missouri tried suing to save. "But this was one of the relief valves for the system," he added. "We were forced to use that valve."
That calculation to draw down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers in the nation's midsection appeared to do its job. On Tuesday night, the Ohio at Metropolis, Ill., measured 54.7 feet - about the same level it had been at the time of the blast. Without that breach, the river was forecast to have steadily crept up to a crest of more than 58 feet.
In Cairo, the Ohio had dropped to 60 feet, about a foot and a half lower than it was at the time of the breach. Cairo, a town of about 2,800 residents, is at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Downstream of Cairo - in southeast Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana - concerns are growing as the Mississippi River continues to rise.
Memphis, where the Mississippi was at 43.8 feet Tuesday, could see a near-record crest of 48 feet on May 11, just inches lower than the record of 48.7 feet in 1937. Water from the Wolf and Loosahatchie rivers already has seeped into parts of the suburbs, and some mobile home parks were swamped.
Flood fears prompted an emergency declaration for 920,000 residents in Shelby County, where authorities blocked some suburban streets and about 220 people were staying in shelters. Emergency officials there estimate that some 5,300 homes and businesses could be affected by flooding blamed at least partly on more than 11 inches of rain that have soaked the Memphis area since April 25.
Flooding already has begun in Dyersburg, which is about 70 miles north-northeast of Memphis. Mayor John Holden said that people in parts of that city near the North Fork of the Forked Deer River should evacuate. Farther south, the lower Mississippi River was expected to crest well above flood stages in a region still dealing with the aftermath of last week's deadly tornadoes.
Forecasters say the river could break records in Mississippi set during catastrophic floods in 1927 and a decade later. Gov. Haley Barbour started warning people last week to take precautions if they live in flood-prone areas near the river, comparing the swell of water moving downriver to a pig moving through a python.
With tornados and the threat of rivers gone wild, "we're making a lot of unfortunate history here in Mississippi in April and May," said Jeff Rent, a Mississippi Emergency Management Agency spokesman.
Because the maximum-security Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is particularly flood-prone, the state plans to evacuate the most medically vulnerable inmates by next Monday, then other inmates later.
Walsh has made clear he may use of other downstream "floodways" -- basins surrounded by levees that can be intentionally blown open to divert floodwaters - to try to rein in the trouble.