Updated 3:17 p.m. ET
MEMPHIS, Tenn. - The Mississippi River crested in Memphis at nearly 48 feet on Tuesday, falling short of its all-time record but still soaking low-lying areas with enough water to require a massive cleanup. To the south, residents in the Mississippi Delta prepared for the worst.
National Weather Service meteorologist Bill Borghoff says the river reached 47.85 feet at 2 a.m. CDT Tuesday and is expected to stay very close to that level for the next 24 to 36 hours. Hitting the high point means things shouldn't get worse in the area, but it will take weeks for the water to recede and much longer for inundated areas to recover.
"Pretty much the damage has been done," Borghoff said.
In states downstream, farmers built homemade levees to protect their crops and engineers diverted water into a lake to ease the pressure on levees around New Orleans. Inmates in Louisiana's largest prison were also evacuated to higher ground.
The Memphis crest is below the record of 48.7 feet recorded during a devastating 1937 flood.
The soaking was isolated to low-lying neighborhoods, and forced hundreds of people from their homes including nearly 500 in shelters Tuesday but no new serious flooding was expected. In many neighborhoods, foul-smelling water approached the roofs of homes, and plastic bottles, garbage cans and rotting tree limbs floated on top.
Residents said they've spotted snakes and fish in the water, while officials warned them of unseen bacteria.
Some greeted news of the river cresting with relief, but for others it was of little consolation. Rocio Rodriguez, 24, has been at a shelter for 12 days with her husband and two young children since their trailer park flooded.
Told by a reporter that the river had hit its high point, she said: "It doesn't matter. We've already lost everything."
Surrounding Shelby County and four others were declared disaster areas by President Barack Obama, which means that they'll be eligible for much-needed federal disaster aid.
Bob Nations Jr., director of the Shelby County Emergency Management Agency, described on Monday what he expects to be slow and costly retreat by the high water: "They're going to recede slowly, it's going to be rather putrid, it's going to be expensive to clean up, it's going to be labor-intensive."
The slow-moving disaster was headed downstream to Mississippi and Louisiana, where residents were bracing themselves.
But for Pastor John Jones, it's already too late: Six feet of floodwater swamped his Bethesda Word of Life Church.
"We don't want to go through this again," Rev. Jones told CBS. "We'll move to higher ground if we have to."
Officials trusted the levees would hold and protect the city's world-famous musical landmarks, from Graceland to Beale Street.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has promised this city's 1,200 miles of levees will hold off disaster. But the surging river's pressure is unprecedented. So in teams, inspectors walk the levees looking for trouble spots.
"The levees have held up very well," the Corps' Cory Williams told CBS. "They're not showing signs of stress except for some seepage issues, and we're repairing those as they come up."
People in 1,300 homes have evacuated. But in his flooded home, Danny Lee Mitchell is staying put - he's afraid of looters.
"We got two evacuation notices," Mitchell told CBS. "But you got to think for yourself. No need to go, because of a concern about vandalism."
Scott Haynes, 46, estimated he would spend more than $80,000 on contractors to build levees around his house and grain silos, which hold 200,000 bushels of rice that he can't get out before the water comes. Heavy equipment has been mowing down his wheat fields to get to the dirt that is being used to build the levees, and he expected nearly all of his farmland to flood.
"That wheat is going to be gone, anyway," said Haynes, who lives in Carter, Miss., about 35 miles east of the Mississippi River. "We don't know if we're doing the right thing or not, but we can't not do it."
He knows time is not on his side. "I've got to get back on that dozer," he said, before walking away.