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MEMPHIS - As many residents here breathed a sigh of relief Tuesday after the lower-than-expected crest of the Mississippi River, others downstream braced for the worst.

The Mississippi crested in Memphis at nearly 48 feet, just short of its all-time record of 48.7.

Some homes had polluted floodwaters near their first-floor ceilings, while others were completely submerged. Snakes and other creatures slithered in the foul water, and officials warned of bacteria. Nearly 500 people in Memphis were in shelters.

On the downtown riverfront, people came out to gawk. High-water marks were visible on concrete posts, indicating that the level was dropping slowly.

"It could have been a lot worse. Levees could have broke," said Memphis resident Janice Harbin, 32. "I'm very fortunate to stand out here and see it - and not be a victim of the flood."

President Barack Obama declared Memphis' Shelby County and surrounding counties disaster areas, making them eligible for federal aid.

The passing of the crest was of little consolation for some. "It doesn't matter. We've already lost everything," said Rocio Rodriguez, 24, who has been at a shelter for 12 days with her husband and two young children since their trailer park flooded.

The floods will move south to Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico past New Orleans over the next two weeks.

In Mississippi on Tuesday, Greg Flynn, a spokesman for the Mississippi emergency management agency, predicted: "We're going to have a lot more when the water gets to where it's never been before."

In Vicksburg, at the southern tip of the rich alluvial soil in the central part of the state, the river was projected to peak on Saturday just above the record set during the cataclysmic Great Flood of 1927.

In Carter, Miss., about 35 miles east of the Mississippi, Scott Haynes, 46, estimated he would spend more than $80,000 on contractors to build levees around his house and grain silos, which hold 200,000 bushels of rice that he can't get out before the water comes. "We don't know if we're doing the right thing or not, but we can't not do it."

More than 1,500 square miles of farmland in Arkansas, which produces about half of the nation's rice, have been swamped over the past few weeks, and the economic impact will be more than $500 million, according to the state's Farm Bureau.

In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal said Tuesday that 3 million acres, an area almost the size of Connecticut, may go under water.

Information from Bloomberg News and the Associated Press was used in this report.