By Suzannah Gonzales
(Reuters) - The Mississippi River, a major artery for U.S. commercial barge traffic, was expected to crest in Tennessee on Friday and Arkansas over the weekend as it pushed south toward the Gulf of Mexico, officials said.
The river is predicted to rise just below 40 feet (12.2 meters) in Memphis, Tennessee, on Friday afternoon, above the 34 feet at which the city considers it a flood event, while it is expected to crest in Helena, Arkansas, on Sunday, according to Jeff Graschel, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service.
Officials expect levees in other states along the lower Mississippi to contain the river's high levels.
The swollen Mississippi and rivers that feed into it wreaked havoc in Missouri and Illinois after heavy rains and severe storms in late December brought flooding across several central U.S. states, leaving at least 33 people dead.
Russell Smith, manager at Miss Cordelia's Grocery on Mud Island, a recreational and residential island separated from downtown Memphis by a part of the Mississippi, said on Friday the water was very high. "We'll just wait and see what happens."
But Dale Lane, director of the Office of Preparedness in Shelby County, where Memphis is located, said they have already seen the water recede in some places.
"We believe the worst of this is already here," he said.
"We're well above flood stage now, but we're not seeing major disruptions at this point," added Lane, who reported some park and road closings but no significant damage or water in homes.
"If it went up a couple more feet, it would have been a different story," he noted. "It's nowhere close to what it was in 2011," when the river was over 48 feet.
In Helena, the main concern was vacation homes located between the levees, said Michael Burchett, emergency management coordinator in Phillips County, Arkansas. Sandbags are on hand and water levels will be monitored through the weekend.
The river's crest will reach Arkansas City, Arkansas, on Tuesday, Jan. 12, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Monday, Jan. 18, said NWS' Graschel.
The threat led the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Louisiana to make plans to open a spillway around New Orleans on Sunday to keep the volume of the river flow in check. State emergency planners are urging residents in potential flood areas to prepare by securing boats, outdoor furniture and other objects that could be swept away.
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency was also watching flood level forecasts closely, particularly around Greenville, Vicksburg and Natchez, according to the agency's posts on social media.
Meanwhile, the Midwest saw the warmest and wettest December on record, the Midwestern Regional Climate Center at the Illinois State Water Survey said. It said the region's preliminary average December 2015 temperature was 36.7 degrees F (2.61 C), or 10.7 degrees above normal. The previous record was 34.1 degrees in 1923.
(Reporting by Suzannah Gonzales; Additonal reporting by Tim Ghianni and Letitia Stein; editing by Ben Klayman, G Crosse)