By DYLAN LOVAN and ADRIAN SAINZ
HICKMAN, Ky. — Jail inmates filled sandbag after sandbag to protect one of the many Southern river cities threatened by the swelling Mississippi as it broke more 1930s flood records and crept higher Thursday.
A flooding tributary threatened to cut off Interstate 40, a major east-west route through Arkansas, and the Army Corps of Engineers planned to blast a new breach in a Missouri levee in hopes of controlling the slow-motion disaster flowing downriver.
Thousands of people from Illinois to Louisiana have already been forced from their homes, and anxiety is rising along with the river, though it could be a week or two before some of the most severe flooding hits.
In Hickman, a town of about 2,500, Morrison Williamson was confident a towering floodwall would save his hardware store, despite small leaks that let some flood waters spray through.
Williamson was in a nearly deserted downtown, keeping his store open for customers who needed flood-fighting supplies. He said the decision to break open the Missouri levee upstream has kept the river from topping the floodwall, saving many communities to the south.
“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 about places in neighboring Tennessee.
About 120 Fulton County jail inmate volunteers dressed in orange or white prisoner uniforms furiously filled sandbags for Hickman. They have made 120,000 since April 26.
“We’re just going to keep going until they say stop,” jail Sgt. James Buckingham said.
Up and down the Big Muddy, farmers braced for a repeat of the desperate strategy employed earlier this week in southeast Missouri, where Army engineers blew up the levee and sacrificed vast stretches of farmland to protect populated areas upstream.
The corps planned to blast a third and final breach in the Birds Point levee around 1 p.m. Thursday to allow water to flow back out of the flood plain into the river.
“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.
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.
Forecasters and emergency officials said some of the high-water records set during the great floods of 1927 and 1937 could fall.
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.
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.”
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 stretch of westbound Interstate 40 was closed where it crosses the White River, adding a 120-mile detour to the main route to Little Rock from Memphis. The state highway department said eastbound lanes remained open Thursday but flooding appeared imminent and they too could be shut.
Arkansas recorded its eighth death since the rains started April 25 when 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 left, and thousands more are expected to follow them.
In Louisiana, shippers, ports and the chemical industry hoped the government could 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 planned to evacuate the most medically vulnerable inmates by Monday, then others 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.