The Mississippi River crested in Memphis at a height just inches short of the area’s all-time record but it is still soaking low-lying areas with enough water to require a massive cleanup.
The National Weather Service said the river reached 15.7m at 2am on Wednesday and was expected to stay close to that level for the next 24 to 36 hours. Reaching its high point means things should not get worse in the area, but it will take weeks for the water to recede and much longer for inundated areas to recover.
The crest is just shy of the record of 16m at Memphis reached during a devastating 1937 flood.
The soaking in Memphis was isolated to low-lying districts, 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.
To the south, residents in the Mississippi Delta prepared for the worst. Farmers downriver built homemade levees to protect their crops and engineers diverted water into a lake to ease the pressure on New Orleans levees. Inmates in Louisiana’s largest prison were also evacuated to higher ground.
Meanwhile, Memphis declared that the city was open as normal. The local professional basketball team played a game as scheduled and a barbecue contest this weekend has been moved to higher ground.
“The country thinks we’re in lifeboats and we are underwater. For visitors, its business as usual,” said Kevin Kane, president and chief executive of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Other popular sites were also spared, including Sun Studio, where Elvis Presley made some of the recordings that helped him become king of rock ‘n’ roll and Stax Records, which launched the careers of Otis Redding and the Staple Singers.
Graceland, Presley’s former estate several miles south of the centre, was in no danger either.