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