LOS ANGELES (REUTERS) - Rain-swollen rivers rose across Missouri and Illinois on Wednesday, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of people, closing parts of a major interstate highway and putting scores of buildings underwater after days of unusual winter flooding that has killed 23 people.
Several major rivers, including the vital Mississippi, were poised to crest at record levels, creating floods as the waters rolled toward the Gulf of Mexico, the National Weather Service said, but parts of the area already are inundated.
News video showed homes and businesses with water almost up to their roofs in Missouri – and one cabin floating away – while crews in other areas put up sand bag barriers in hopes of keeping out water. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon called the flooding in his state “very historic and dangerous” and brought out the National Guard for help.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has declared a state of emergency to prepare for imminent flooding as the waters move south.
At least 23 people have died in Missouri, Illinois and Oklahoma in flooding after days of downpours that brought as much as 30cm of rain to some areas. Almost all of the deaths have been caused by people driving into flooded areas.
Along the Meramec River in Eureka, Missouri, Mayor Kevin Coffey, said a man had to be rescued from atop the cab of his pick-up truck after spending the night in a parking lot to watch over his gun shop business and then trying to drive away.
“This is 4 feet (1.2m) above the worst flood we ever had,” said Coffey, warming up in a police car after helping to place sandbags around a school. “The town looks like one huge lake.”
Past historic floods on the Mississippi in 1993, 1995 and 2011 all occurred during warm weather, after snow melts up north.
AccuWeather senior meteorologist Alex Sosnowski said it is highly unusual to have this kind of flooding in winter and more trouble could come in the spring.
“The gun may be loaded again for another major flooding event,” said Sosnowski, who cited the El Nino weather pattern as the source of recent heavy rains.
“You’re not supposed to get this kind of heavy rainfall during the wintertime.”
Agriculture experts said that water standing more than a week could kill the soft red winter wheat crop. Export premiums for corn and soybeans were at their highest levels in weeks because of stalled barge traffic on the swollen rivers.
The US flooding comes at the same time as historic flooding across northern England, including York and Leeds.
RECORD RIVER CRESTS
Several major rivers, including the Mississippi, and tributaries in Missouri and Illinois were poised to crest at record levels, the National Weather Service said, but parts of the region already are inundated.
Flood warnings stretch from eastern Oklahoma into southeastern Kansas, southern Missouri, central Illinois and parts of Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Florida panhandle, the NWS said.
While the rains have stopped for now, freezing weather is setting in, which will make the cleanup a miserable undertaking, Sosnowski said. “We may be in for a bit of a winter wonderland,” Coffey said.
At the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, about 32km north of St Louis, residents of the towns West Alton and Arnold were told to evacuate on Tuesday. About 400 residents and businesses in the town of Pacific also have evacuated.
The US Coast Guard closed a 8km stretch of the Mississippi near St Louis on Tuesday to all vessel traffic due to hazardous conditions.
The floodwaters have forced the closure of roadways and highways, including multiple sections of Interstate 44, a major highway that runs from western Texas to St Louis, the Missouri Department of Transportation said on Wednesday.
The Mississippi River is expected to crest over the weekend at Thebes, Illinois, at 14.5m, more than 46cm above the 1995 record, according to the NWS.
In Illinois, some inmates were moved out of the Menard Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison on the banks of the Mississippi River, and sandbags and drinking water were prepared in anticipation of flooding in lower level cell blocks, Illinois officials said in a statement.