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      Slow-moving disaster along mighty Mississippi

      A structure is seen nearly covered by floodwater from the Mississippi River north of New Madrid, Mo. / AP photo

      HICKMAN, Ky. (AP) " Morrison Williamson feels confident the floodwall about 10 feet from the hardware store he manages will save it, even though two rivulets of the swollen Mississippi River sprout from reinforcing timbers on the structure like water from a garden hose.

      Others in Hickman, a town of about 2,500 in the southwest corner of Kentucky, are keeping their eye on the earthen levee that adjoins the floodwall. About 120 Fulton County jail inmate volunteers dressed in orange or white prisoner uniforms furiously filled sandbags Wednesday.

      Jail Sgt. James Buckingham says the inmates have made 120,000 sandbags since April 26.

      "We're just going to keep going until they say stop," Buckingham said.

      Anticipating a slow-motion disaster that could break flood records dating to the 1920s, thousands of people from Illinois to Louisiana have already been forced from their homes, and anxiety is rising along with the mighty river, even though it could be a week or two before some of the most severe flooding hits.

      Williamson was in a nearly deserted downtown and while his secretary is too worried to work in the store, he's kept it open for customers who need flood-fighting supplies. He thinks the decision to break open a Missouri levee upstream has kept the river from topping the floodwall, and that has saved many communities 20 miles to the south in Tennessee.


      "They say blowing up the levee saved Cairo (Ill.). Well, it did. But if this breaks, you're talking Dyersburg, Ridgely, Tiptonville, water all the way to Memphis," Williamson said.

      Up and down the Big Muddy, farmers braced for a repeat of the desperate strategy employed earlier this week in Missouri, where Army engineers blew up a levee and sacrificed vast stretches of farmland to protect populated areas upstream.

      "I've never seen it this bad," said 78-year-old Joe Harrison, who has lived in the same house in Hickman since he was 11 months old. Floodwaters turned his house into an island " dry but surrounded by water. He has been using a boat to get to his car, parked on dry ground along a highway that runs by his house.

      Forecasters and emergency officials said some of the high-water records set during the great floods of 1927 and 1937 could fall. On Wednesday, for example, the Mississippi eclipsed the 46-foot mark set in 1937 in Caruthersville, Mo., and the water was still rising, with a crest of 49.5 feet forecast for Sunday.

      But because of the system of levees and locks built since those disasters more than 70 years ago, flooding this time is unlikely to be anywhere near as devastating.

      "We have a high confidence in our levees, but in the sense of transparency, we have to say that the levees have not been tested," Shelby County Emergency Management Director Bob Nations said in Memphis, Tenn.

      Tom Salem, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Memphis, said flooding is extreme this year in part because of drenching rain over the past two weeks. In some areas, Wednesday was the first day without rain since April 25.

      "It's been a massive amount of rain for a long period of time. And we're still getting snowmelt from Montana," Salem said.

      President Barack Obama on Wednesday declared parts of Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky disasters, making the states eligible for federal help with relief efforts. It does not cover individual assistance.

      The great flood of the lower Mississippi River Valley in 1927 was one of the biggest natural disasters in U.S. history. More than 23,000 square miles were inundated, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and hundreds died.

      The flood found its place in folklore, literature and films, and popular songs including "When the Levee Breaks" were written about the disaster.

      More devastation came in 1937 when 31,000 square miles were submerged from West Virginia to Louisiana.

      Lifelong Hickman resident H.L. Williamson, 77, was a boy when he and his family fled to the highest point in town. He recalled little except that his brother wouldn't eat black-eyed peas or grapefruit for years because that was all they had during the flood.

      This time, Williamson packed up and left his home, which was still dry thanks to a hill just inches higher than the floodwaters. He took only a few belongings, including the Navy uniform he hopes to be buried in.

      The relief from blowing up the levee is probably only temporary downstream in Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana because the water will eventually find its way back into the Mississippi River.

      In Arkansas, a 23-mile stretch of westbound Interstate 40 was closed where it crosses the White River, adding a detour of about 52 miles to the route between Little Rock and Memphis. Eastbound traffic will eventually face an even longer detour.

      Arkansas recorded its eighth death since the rains started April 25. Authorities found the body of a man in the floodwaters in eastern Arkansas' Prairie County.

      In Kentucky, about 3,800 residents have left their homes.

      Memphis, where the Mississippi was at 43.8 feet Tuesday, could see a crest of 48 feet on May 11, just inches below the record of 48.7 feet set in 1937. Water from the Wolf and Loosahatchie rivers already has seeped into the suburbs, and some mobile home parks were swamped.

      Emergency management officials said more than 1,100 houses and apartments could be hit with flooding. Several hundred people have already been evacuated, and thousands more are expected to do the same.

      In Louisiana, shippers, ports and the chemical industry are hoping the government can dredge fast enough to keep a major channel into the Gulf of Mexico unclogged. The Mississippi sends huge amounts of sediment downriver during high-water times.

      Because the maximum-security Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is particularly flood-prone, the state plans to evacuate the most medically vulnerable inmates by Monday, then other inmates later.

      Mississippi officials told about 1,000 people packed into a National Guard armory Wednesday that they are confident the main levees along the Mississippi River will withstand high water in the coming weeks, but they warned that some backwater levees could be overtopped by as much as a foot.

      Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour warned people to expect monumental flooding and said he was moving his furniture from his family's lakeside home to prepare for flooding from the Yazoo River.

      With the recent deadly outbreak of tornadoes and, now, the threat of flooding, "we're making a lot of unfortunate history here in Mississippi in April and May," said Jeff Rent, a Mississippi Emergency Management Agency spokesman.


      Sainz reported from Memphis. Associated Press writers Jim Suhr in Metropolis, Ill., and Holbrook Mohr in Rolling Fork, Miss., contributed to this report.

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