In the poverty-stricken Mississippi Delta, meanwhile, people waited uneasily to see how high the water would get. About 600 homes in the Delta have flooded in the past several days as the water has risen toward some of the highest levels on record.
"It's getting scary," said Rita Harris, 43, who lives in a tiny wooden house in the shadow of the levee in Rena Lara, a town of about 500. "They won't let you go up there to look at the water."
The flood crest is expected to push past the Delta by late next week.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour urged people to get out if they think there is even a chance their homes will flood. Tributaries are also backing up because the Mississippi is so high there is no place for the water to go. He said there is no reason to believe a levee on the Yazoo River would fail, but if it did, water would flow over small towns.
"More than anything else, save your life and don't put at risk other people who might have to come in and save your lives," he said.
In Hollandale, one of the small rural towns in the Delta the governor warned might flood if the levee breaks, 62-year-old nursing home worker Geraldine Jackson fretted about what to do if she and her husband have to leave their red-brick house, where pieces of the roof have broken off and the white trim is peeling.
"I have relatives, but all my relatives live in the Delta, and the water's going to get them too," she said. "I'm just real messed up."
Swollen by weeks of heavy rain and snowmelt, the Mississippi River has been breaking high-water records that have stood since the 1920s and '30s. It is projected to crest at Vicksburg on May 19 and shatter the mark set there during the cataclysmic Great Flood of 1927. The crest is expected to reach New Orleans on May 23.
Even after the peak passes, water levels will remain high for weeks, and it could take months for flooded homes to dry out.
In southeast Missouri, where floodwaters were receding, residents of hard-hit towns were getting their first look at the damage.
The Southeast Missourian reported Thursday that streets in the town of Morehouse, where about 280 homes were damaged, were lined with piles of ruined couches, beds, clothing and carpeting. The stench of mold filled the air.
"Everything was ruined. Even if it didn't get wet, it got mold on it," said Melissa Massey, whose home had five inches of water in it for five days. "Mold is growing up the walls right now."
Byrd reported from Rena Lara, Miss. Associated Press writers Alan Sayre in New Orleans and Emily Wagster Pettus and Holbrook Mohr in Jackson contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.