HICKMAN, Ky. (AP) - People along the lower Mississippi River and its tributaries packed up their belongings and emergency workers feverishly filled sandbags as high water pushed its way downstream Wednesday in a slow-motion disaster that could break flood records dating to the Depression.
From Illinois to Mississippi, thousands of people 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.
"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 from the Mississippi 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.
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.
The looming disaster is being compared to the great floods of 1927 and 1937.
Tom Salem, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Memphis, Tenn., said flooding is extreme this year because the Ohio River and the Tennessee River valleys have been drenched with rain in the past two weeks.
Tributaries that flow into the Mississippi are backing up, too, because the river itself is so high. And they account for some of the worst of the flooding so far.
"It's been a massive amount of rain for a long period of time. And we're still getting snowmelt from Montana," Salem said.
In some areas, Wednesday was the first day without rain since April 25.
The great flood of the lower Mississippi River valley in 1927 was one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. More than 23,000 square miles were inundated, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and about 250 died.
In the aftermath, authorities were criticized for helping rescue whites while leaving thousands of black plantation workers stranded for days without food or drinking water. The flood found its place in folklore, literature and films, and popular songs including "When the Levee Breaks" were written about the disaster.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' demolition of a Missouri levee on Monday eased flood worries for some communities. In Cairo, Ill., a town of about 2,800 people at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, the Ohio dropped a foot and a half.
But the relief downstream in Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana - is probably only temporary because the water will eventually find its way back into the Mississippi.
About 3,800 Kentuckians have left their homes because of flooding.
Hickman, a town of about 2,500, has floodwalls and the river isn't expected to top them. But officials are concerned about the earthen levee that adjoins the wall. It has been reinforced with about 100,000 sandbags.
Also, contractor was running 90 dump trucks 24 hours a day between a quarry and the levee in Hickman, bringing in rock to fortify the town's flood defenses.
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.