POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. — Relentless, driving rain is pounding southern Missouri, leaving levees ready to burst and sending residents to higher ground – and the rain isn’t expected to stop for days.
Tuesday brought the promise of more showers and thunderstorms to the area around Poplar Bluff in southeast Missouri, one of many river towns in the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys threatened by floodwaters.
The already swollen Black River was rising even further, pouring over more than three dozen spots along the levee that protects the southern part of the town of 17,000 residents in the Ozark Mountain foothills, surrounded by the Mark Twain National Forest.
More than 1,000 homes were evacuated as murky flood water crept into hundreds of yards and even some houses. If the levee breaks completely, many homes will be left uninhabitable. Sandbagging wasn’t an option – the river, spurred on by 10 inches or more of rain since last week, simply rose too quickly.
“By the time we realized what was happening it was too dangerous to sandbag,” Butler County Presiding Commissioner Ed Strenfel said.
Severe storms that began early last week have hammered a swath of the nation’s midsection without letup. Again Monday, powerful storms ravaged Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Texas, Tennessee and other states. Authorities said at least five people were killed in Arkansas – three of them when floodwaters swept two vehicles off of roadways and two when a likely twister tore through the small town of Vilonia.
The storm system was expected to move into Illinois and Wisconsin on Tuesday, said Greg Carbin, a meteorologist with the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. At the same time, a second storm system will start along the same path, meaning several more days of rain. That system will continue east through Thursday, he said.
Governors in both Arkansas and Kentucky declared states of emergency. In Kentucky, historic flooding is expected over the next few days, partly because of a double-whammy – both the Ohio and Mississippi rivers significantly above flood stage. Several dozen residents were evacuated near the confluence of the rivers at Cairo, Ill.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was considering the extraordinary step of intentionally breaching the Birds Point levee in southeast Missouri, just downriver of the confluence, in a bid to reduce the amount of water moving down the Mississippi. The move would soak 130,000 acres of farmland, and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon objected to the idea. A decision was expected Tuesday.
Missouri was still cleaning up from tornado damage in the St. Louis area – 2,700 buildings, including Lambert Airport, were damaged in the Friday night twister – when spring flooding went from bad to far worse Monday.
A dam in St. Francois County was in jeopardy of bursting, with a few dozen homes potentially in harm’s way. Levees were stressed along the Mississippi River in Pike and Lincoln counties, north of St. Louis.
But by far the biggest concern was Poplar Bluff. The Missouri National Guard sent 200 guardsmen and rescue equipment to the area. Several people had to be rescued by boat, including some who don’t live in the flood plain, as heavy rain flooded several streets Monday night.
Police officers spent Monday going door-to-door in the southwest part of town, telling residents to get out. Not everyone did.
Along one road near the levee, children played knee-deep in water. Adults gathered on the porches, seemingly enjoying nature’s show.
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“I’m not worried. This is my favorite time of the year,” 20-year-old Brandon Andrews said, pledging to ride out the flood in his trailer home, even as water lapped against its sides. He didn’t have a boat and the water was already too high to drive through, but Andrews said he had been to the store and stocked up on hot dogs, chili and necessities.
Others were being more cautious. At least 150 took shelter at the town’s Black River Coliseum, a concert and meeting venue overlooking the swollen river. Hotels in town were full. Some displaced residents stayed with relatives.
Police Chief Danny Whiteley was hoping the water would recede soon enough that flooding would mostly be limited to basements. He wasn’t optimistic.
“I guess you’d call it a perfect storm: It’s just all come together at once,” Whiteley said.