A soggy South saw floodwaters push into homes and submerge highways Friday as a week of relentless rain continued to pound the Mississippi and Tennessee valleys.
Saturday could be worse across parts of eastern Arkansas, northern Mississippi and western Tennessee, with forecasters predicting inches more rain and a strong chance of tornadoes. The water will take weeks to drain, with the worst flood since 2011 predicted for parts of the lower Mississippi River.
In places like Bruce, Mississippi, rivers leaped into flood stage and flash floods poured into homes and businesses.
“It’s worse than I’ve ever seen it,” said the Rev. Eddie Spearman, pastor of the Lighthouse Church of Christ Jesus in Bruce.
He said flash floods pushed into his church Wednesday, but by the time he got it cleaned up Thursday night, another drenching was underway. National Weather Service radar estimated the 2,000-person north Mississippi town saw 6 inches (15 centimeters) of rain Thursday and Friday. Spearman said water was more than a foot (0.3 meter) deep in his church Friday morning, even though town officials placed sandbags trying to keep it dry.
“It got the piano and organ and all of that stuff,” the 65-year-old Spearman said. “I’m lost. I don’t know what to do until all the water goes down.”
Alderman Jimmy Hubbard said Bruce’s city maintenance shed was flooded and more than 75 people were evacuated from the low-lying neighborhood near Spearman’s church.
“It’s been total chaos for this little town all morning,” Hubbard said.
Volunteers were filling sandbags to try to save properties from the Skuna River, which jumped by 19 feet (5.8 meters) from noon Thursday to 2 p.m. Friday according to an automated gauge. Hubbard said officials fear a further rise as water drains from upriver.
“We’ve got so much more water that hasn’t even gotten here yet,” Hubbard said.
More than 30 school districts in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee closed Friday, in part because school buses couldn’t navigate flooded roads.
Road officials in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi reported Friday that more than 50 state or federal highways were closed by flooding, plus scores more local roads. Kentucky announced Friday that it was closing the U.S. 51 bridge over the Ohio River to Cairo, Illinois, because of flooding on the southern approach. The bridge, which carries 4,700 vehicles a day, is likely to stay closed until Thursday, and possibly longer.
The Ohio River at Cairo is predicted to crest Sunday at its third-highest level ever recorded, and stay that high into next week.
Floodwater is roaring through spillway gates on many dams on the Tennessee River.
“We’re seeing some of the highest rates we’ve seen in many decades,” said James Everett, manager of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s River Forecast Center. The federal agency controls the dams.
The Tennessee River at Savannah is predicted to hit its third-highest crest ever, threatening Hagy’s Catfish Hotel, a famous restaurant near the Shiloh National Battlefield.
Manager Joey McAfee, a 42-year-Hagy’s veteran, said the restaurant was still serving catfish and hush puppies Friday. But he expected water to cut off the road to Hagy’s by Saturday and said the restaurant was likely to flood for the first time since 2004.
“We’ve got three garbage dumpsters that have already floated off,” McAfee said.
In Hickman, Kentucky, a hillside gave way Wednesday in a mudslide, threatening two houses, including one vacant since a 2011 mudslide. Interim City Manager Cub Stokes tells the Paducah Sun that officials are worried more rain could worsen the collapse.
Flooding is also a concern on smaller rivers in the flat Mississippi Delta, where water can spread for miles when rivers overflow. Floodwaters have already entered a few houses in Greenwood, and that town’s mayor told The Greenwood Commonwealth that employees were working frantically to keep water moving through drainage ditches that pancake-flat towns rely on to carry away water.
“The pumps are on, and they’re churning like crazy,” Mayor Carolyn McAdams said.