By Suzannah Gonzales
(Reuters) - Officials along the lower Mississippi River prepared on Monday for the swollen river to reach its peak in their area, expecting levees to provide protection after flooding killed dozens of people as it pushed downriver toward the Gulf of Mexico.
The crest is currently at the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers in Cairo, Illinois, and it will take a couple weeks for the water to move to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, National Weather Service hydrologist Jeff Graschel said.
The Mississippi River is forecast to crest at 40.5 feet (12.3 meters) on Friday in Memphis, 6.5 feet (2 meters) over the location's flood stage, Graschel said.
In Vicksburg, Mississippi where the river is forecast to reach a high level of 54 feet by Jan. 15, emergency management officials are getting word out to residents likely to be affected and distributing sandbags to businesses that could be threatened by floodwaters.
Although some homes and roads could become inaccessible due to rising waters, evacuations are not expected, said Tracey Porter, deputy director for the emergency management agency in Warren County. Vicksburg is the county seat of Warren County.
In Baton Rouge, where the flood stage is 35 feet, the crest is expected to reach 44 feet on Jan. 18, Graschel said. Such levels usually are not seen until late winter and early spring when snow melts and there is heavy rainfall, he said.
RELYING ON LEVEES
The levels are about a foot lower than the lower Mississippi River region saw in 2011, when there was significant flooding, Graschel said.
"All the levels we're expecting will be contained in the levee systems," Graschel said.
"We're just taking it day by day," Porter said on Monday. "The main concern is safety and protection of property."
Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant issued a state of emergency last week ahead of major flooding expected along the Mississippi River and its tributaries.
Days of downpours pushed the Mississippi and smaller rivers over their banks in several states during the holiday period. At least 32 people have died in several states, including Illinois and Missouri, most of them after vehicles drove into flooded areas.
Ten people have died in the Illinois flooding and a dozen counties have been declared disaster areas there, an Illinois Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman said.
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 in two places in Arkansas. The first is in Des Arc, about 50 miles northeast of Little Rock, where the White River is expected to peak on Monday at 31.6 feet (9.6 meters), well above the 24-foot (7.3 meters) flood stage.
The second is along the Arkansas River at Pine Bluff, where the river crested during the weekend and is expected to remain above flood stage for most of Monday, the NWS said.
"Everyone with property or other interest along streams and rivers should remain alert to changing weather forecast," the weather service said.
(Reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago, Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and Jon Herskovitz in Austin; Editing by Bill Trott)