MEMPHIS, Tennessee (Reuters) - The Mississippi River was cresting at Memphis on Tuesday just inches below the all-time record as the swollen wall of water moved south toward the Gulf of Mexico.

The level of the largest river in North America may have reached its peak at 47.87 feet on Tuesday morning in Memphis, and it has dropped since then, according to Andy Sniezak, meteorologist for the National Weather Service.

"The river is in the cresting phase, which is good news," said Steve Shular, spokesman for the Shelby County Office of Preparedness. "But we're still going to have problems for the next several days because the water is so high and it will keep the creeks and tributaries high as well."

Downstream, the U.S. government was preparing to open a second Louisiana spillway to ease the flooding threat to New Orleans and Baton Rouge. A spillway near New Orleans was opened on Monday for the first time since 2008.

Communities without levees north and south of Vicksburg, Mississippi, already were inundated and residents near the banks of the river eyed their flood protections uneasily.

Few injuries have been reported in Tennessee or Mississippi from the flooding, but thousands of residents have been evacuated as the flood tide from snow melt and rains in the upper Midwest has pushed the river miles-wide in many spots.

In Shelby County about 500 people were in shelters, and several hundred others were staying with friends and family.

"They don't call it the Mighty Mississippi for nothing," said Shular, noting that the swollen river is running hard and fast because of the flood. "We certainly are discouraging people from getting near it and in it."

Shular said many people in kayaks were out in the main channel last night. He noted the dangers of copperheads and water moccasins, both venomous snakes, coming into homes and yards, and that people need to be wary when they return home.

Forecasters said weather in Memphis will be sunny and hot over the next couple of days, but thunderstorms were expected on Thursday which could stall the receding waters.

Since the Mississippi River flood of 1927 that killed some 1,000 people, improvements have been made in flood control with the building of dams and levees, reservoirs and floodways. Those fortifications have held all along the river this year.

Melt from the unusually snowy winter saturated many areas of the Midwest and fed near-record water levels. Problems were compounded in southern Illinois where the rain-swollen Ohio River flowed into the Mississippi from the east.

The flooding is hurting farmers. Nearly 3 million acres of farm land in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee are flooded or are expected to flood, officials said.

About 500,000 acres of Mississippi Delta farmland were under water, according to Andy Prosser, head of marketing at the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce.

He said the rising waters were delaying fuel and supply shipments to farmers because some highways were impassable.

"This is an issue of supply and demand. There are 11 million cultivated acres of crops in Mississippi and damaged crops will have an affect on prices nationwide," he said.

Prosser said new plantings under water include corn, soybeans, and cotton with thousands of farmers who have yet to plant wondering when and where they could get a crop in.

"We have to watch when the waters recede because that is when the real problems start," Prosser said.

"I've never seen anything like this and I've been farming for 31 years. This is a once-in-a-lifetime flood," said Joe Christian, a 48-year-old second-generation farmer in Jonesboro, Arkansas, about 60 miles northwest of Memphis.

The cresting river will be welcome news to the nine floating casinos in Tunica County, Mississippi, about 25 miles south of Memphis. They have been closed because of flooding since May 2, and the economic impact has been severe.

Valerie Morris, vice-president for Caesars Entertainment in Tunica, said some of the casinos could open in as early as two weeks, while others could be closed for up to six more weeks.

The casinos gross about $87 million a month, with $10 million going to state and local taxes. They also employ 9,700 people. "This is unprecedented," Morris said. "We're 24/7, so we have never closed."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the Bonnet Carre spillway north of New Orleans Monday to divert some water to Lake Pontchartrain. It had no impact on homes or businesses.

The Corps also has asked permission to open the Morganza Spillway on Thursday, which would reduce pressure on Baton Rouge and New Orleans by diverting water to the Atchafalaya River Basin. This would force the evacuation of some people and livestock.

Last week, the Corps blasted open a Missouri levee, flooding about 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland to ease pressure on the levee system and towns in southern Illinois and western Kentucky. Dozens of farms were flooded.

Through Mississippi, residents were bracing for potential record crests at Vicksburg on May 19 and at Natchez on May 21 and authorities were warning that up to 5,000 Mississippi residents may be forced to evacuate.

(Additional reporting by Tim Ghianni in Nashville, Selam Gebrekidan, Karl Plume and Leigh Coleman; Editing by Greg McCune, James Kelleher and Jerry Norton)

Source: Reuters US Online Report Domestic News

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