Steve Sands takes pictures of the rising waters in the Mississippi River as flood waters approach their crest in Greenbelt Park in Memphis
By Suzannah Gonzales and Tim Ghianni
(Reuters) - Tennessee residents girded on Monday for the rapidly rising Mississippi River to crest within days as Oklahoma officials found the body of a country-rock singer whose boat capsized on a lake in late December.
The swollen Mississippi and rivers that feed into it wreaked havoc in Missouri and Illinois after late December heavy rain and severe storms brought flooding across several central U.S. states, leaving at least 33 people dead.
Officials on Monday found the body of Craig Strickland, 29, lead singer of the country-rock band Backroad Anthem, in an Oklahoma lake. Strickland and a friend, who also died, had been caught in a severe winter storm while duck hunting in late December.
In northwestern Tennessee, the Mississippi River is expected to remain inside levees and moderate flooding is forecast in Memphis, where the river is expected to crest on Friday, according to the National Weather Service.
The weather service initially expected major flooding at Tiptonville, Tennessee, but in recent days cut 3 feet (1 meter) from that forecast and said the river was near a crest on Monday with minor flooding at about 7 feet (2.1 meters) over flood stage.
"Things have settled down a little bit," Dewayne Haggard, a Tiptonville board manager, said in a telephone interview. "People are not as edgy."
The rare winter flood is expected to bring major flooding to farther downstream from Memphis on the lower Mississippi - testing but not breaking levees as the wave pushes toward the Gulf of Mexico during the next two weeks.
RELYING ON LEVEES
In Vicksburg, Mississippi, the NWS on Monday cut its forecast for the projected river crest by 1-1/2 feet (45 centimeters) to 52.5 feet (16 meters) by Jan. 15. Officials were distributing sandbags to businesses that could be threatened by floodwaters.
Although some homes and roads may become inaccessible as the water rises, no evacuations are expected, said Tracey Porter, deputy director for the Warren County emergency management agency where Vicksburg is located.
"The main concern is safety and protection of property," Porter said on Monday.
The Mississippi is expected to reach a high of 44 feet (13.4 meters) at Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Jan. 18, about 9 feet (2.7 meters) above flood stage, said Jeff Graschel, a National Weather Service hydrologist.
Graschel said such levels usually are not seen at Baton Rouge until late winter and early spring, when snow melts and there is heavy rainfall.
"All the levels we're expecting will be contained in the levee systems," Graschel said.
Most of the deaths in the heavy flooding since late December have come after vehicles drove into flooded areas. Ten people have died in flooding in Illinois, where a dozen counties have been declared disaster areas.
The toll nationally could rise. The St. Francis County Sheriff in Arkansas is searching for a man caught in flood waters on Sunday in an area about 100 miles east of Little Rock.
The NWS said there was major flooding on the White River at Des Arc, Arkansas, about 50 miles northeast of Little Rock, and on the Arkansas River at Pine Bluff, Arkansas, about 40 miles south of Little Rock.
(Reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago, Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Jon Herskovitz in Austin and Heide Brandes in Oklahoma City; Writing by David Bailey; Editing by Bill Trott)