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Heavy April Showers Inundate Midwest States With Widespread Flooding

April 24, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Steady downpours across the Midwest have swollen rivers, creeks and streams beyond their banks. The Illinois River reached a 70-year high and so far four people in three states have died. Ray Suarez reports on how communities have been coping with rising waters, heavy rain and increasing damage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now the floods along the Mississippi and other Midwest rivers, creeks and streams.

This week, communities are coping with rising waters, heavy rain and increasing damage, with no immediate end in sight. The scope of the problem keeps growing, with flooding along the Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri rivers. Towns and cities from North Dakota to Arkansas have felt the brunt, with its biggest impact so far in Illinois and Missouri.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: The rain-swollen Mississippi River neared its crest today near Saint Louis, after days of rising waters.

Muddy river waters covered the tops of trees and street signs, and a boat was the best way to get around in some areas. The unruly river caused more than 100 barges to break free earlier this week. A handful of them hit a Saint Louis County bridge. The Coast Guard says at least 10 barges sank.

Meanwhile, floodwaters on the Illinois River crested at 29 feet. That’s the highest it’s risen in 70 years. The waters began falling today. Volunteers worked steadily to throw up tens of thousands of sandbag barriers to stop flooding. But, for some houses, the waters couldn’t be stopped. Many stood partially submerged yesterday. Buildings on the floodplain, like this one, were suddenly in the middle of the river.

Meanwhile, in the north of the state, the water receded enough in some areas to allow residents to start their cleanup. In Des Plaines, west of Chicago, the streets are lined with the unsalvageable.

WOMAN: We see people going through our things. And it’s not something you just throw out that you don’t want. This belonged to my children.

MAN: I have lived here all my life, and I have never, ever seen anything like this, never.

RAY SUAREZ: Steady downpours across the Midwest have swollen streams, creeks and rivers beyond their banks. Four people in three states have died in the floodwaters.

It’s a striking change from just a few months ago. In Saint Louis, the river was almost 40 feet lower as recently as four months ago. Last summer’s drought forced barges to lighten their loads to ride higher in the water. Shallow banks meant a long, single-file trip down the Mississippi for thousands of barges.

National Weather Service hydrologist Mark Fuchs spoke to our colleagues at KETC Saint Louis earlier today.

MARK FUCHS, National Weather Service: It’s not entirely unheard of, but for the river to go as long as minus-4.6 feet, all the way up to 35.2, as it is right now, is — is considerable. And we really haven’t — I have looked back in history trying to find comparable events. And there’s a handful. But I have to go all the way back into the ’60s, early ’70s perhaps to find anything close to that.

RAY SUAREZ: The National Weather Service expects many of the rivers and creeks in the Midwest to remain high into next month.

Illinois’ director of emergency management warned yesterday more flooding may be on the way.

JONATHON MONKEN, Illinois Emergency Management Agency: I just got the forecast up north for the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Their forecast is expected to be in the 70s this weekend, which means we’re going to have an extremely rapid snowmelt up north, which will contribute additional water to what we’re seeing here. So it’s definitely something that people need to keep our eye on.

RAY SUAREZ: In Clarksville, Mo., officials also said they remain on alert for what’s still to come, even as floodwaters began falling.

MAYOR JO ANNE SMILEY, Clarksville, Mo.: Oh, yes, it can change in an instant. It could change if in fact we have a deluge of rain above us and the river should go higher than we can handle. Then we will have to increase the height of the wall that’s there. And it can be done, but we’d have to pull things — pull things back together really fast.

RAY SUAREZ: In North Dakota, residents are scrambling to prepare for the coming melt of plenty of spring snow. Bulldozers built more than seven miles of clay levees in anticipation of a rapidly rising river in Fargo.

APRIL WALKER, City Engineer, Fargo, N.D.: Intention is to get as much done in a managed fashion, so it’s not — I don’t want to say Armageddon, but it’s not as hurried as we were in the 2009 event or previous events.

RAY SUAREZ: Volunteers worked earlier this week to fill 500,000 sandbags in five days, ahead of the floodwaters.

While some communities brace for the snowmelt, the worst may be over in others. Floodwaters are slowly receding from the highest levels ever seen along the Grand River in Western Michigan. When it was running high, the Grand carried debris all the way to Lake Michigan.

MARY JO BOLETTO, Michigan: The piles are incredibly tall. And there’s just — just the amount of debris is pretty remarkable.

STEPHEN SHERWOOD, Michigan: I found a picnic table, some shoes. I found some caulk that it looks like people were using to cover up holes in their houses, so just all kinds of stuff.

RAY SUAREZ: Weather officials said the Grand River was expected to fall below flood stage tomorrow.