Image: Aerial of Cedar Rapids flooding
Steve Pope  /  AP
Downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was submerged Thursday by the rising Cedar River. Around 100 blocks were under water, forcing some 10,000 people to flee.
NBC News and news services
updated 6/13/2008 10:36:04 AM ET 2008-06-13T14:36:04

Officials evacuated patients from a Cedar Rapids hospital on Friday as the rising waters from the Cedar River confounded the city's best efforts to secure the downtown area.

The hospital's 176 patients, including about 30 patients in a nursing home facility at the hospital, were being evacuated to other hospitals in the region. The evacuation started late Thursday night and continued Friday morning in the city of 124,000 residents.

"Some are frail and so it's a very delicate process with them," said Karen Vander Sanden, a hospital spokeswoman.

Water was seeping into the hospital's lower levels, where the emergency generator is located, said Dustin Hinrichs of the Linn County emergency operations center. "They proactively and preventatively started evacuation basically guessing on the fact they were going to lose power," he said.

Dave Koch, a spokesman for the Cedar Rapids fire department, said the river will crest Friday at about 31.8 feet. It was at 30.9 feet early in the morning. In a 1993 flood, considered the worst flood in recent history, it was at 19.27 feet.

"We are seeing a historic hydrological event taking place with unprecedented river levels occurring," added Brian Pierce, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Davenport. "We're in uncharted territory — this is an event beyond what anybody could even imagine."

100 blocks under water
By late Thursday, officials estimated that 100 blocks were under water, where several days of preparation could not hold back the rain-swollen river. Rescuers had to use boats to reach many stranded residents, and people could be seen dragging suitcases up closed highway exit ramps to escape the water.

"We're just kind of at God's mercy right now, so hopefully people that never prayed before this, it might be a good time to start," Linn County Sheriff Don Zeller said late Thursday. "We're going to need a lot of prayers and people are going to need a lot of patience and understanding."

No deaths or serious injuries were reported in Iowa, but one man was killed in southern Minnesota after his car plunged from a washed-out road into floodwaters. Another person was rescued from a nearby vehicle in the town of Albert Lea.

Just southeast of Grand Rapids, Mich., crews pulled the body of a motorist from a car found drifting in the swollen Thornapple River. State police said they believe the 57-year-old man called on his cell phone but didn't say what happened or where he was; they found him using global positioning equipment.

People in several northern Missouri communities, meanwhile, were piling up sandbags to prepare for flooding in the Missouri River, expected to crest over the weekend, and a more significant rise in the Mississippi River expected Wednesday.

Amtrak's California Zephyr line was suspended across Iowa because of flooding along the BNSF Railway.

Critical problems in Cedar Rapids
Despite all the water in the town, there was precious little for toilets, cleaning, or drinking.

Koch, the fire department spokesman, said the city is at critical levels and only one well was operating. It was in a flood area protected by sandbags, and generators were pumping water away. Normally, the city has six or more functioning wells, he said.

"If we lost that one we would be in serious trouble. Basically we are using more water than we are producing," he said. "We really need to reduce the amount of water we are using ... even using paper plates, hand sanitizer."

Video: Family loses home Area hotels issued water warnings, including the Marriott Hotel, which issued a statement imploring guests to cut their usage and use water only for drinking.

"Any flushing of the toilet, running the sink, or showering should be kept to a minimum. We understand this is asking a lot, but anyway you may be able to assist us in this time of crisis would go a long way to avoid an even greater disaster," the statement said.

Gov. Chet Culver declared 83 of the state's 99 counties as state disaster areas. Nine rivers are at or above historic flood levels.

The surging river caused part of a railroad bridge and about 20 hopper cars loaded with rocks to collapse into the river. The cars had been positioned on the bridge in hopes of weighing it down against the rising water.

The evacuations in Cedar Rapids followed a round earlier Thursday when some residents of Iowa City and Cedar Bluffs were also told to head for higher ground.

In Des Moines, about 300 volunteers and members of the Iowa Army National Guard worked late Thursday into Friday to shore up a levee showing some soft spots north of downtown. The levee protects a neighborhood along the rising Des Moines River.

They shored up the levee with about 60,000 sandbags, and the levee was holding, said A.J. Mumm, spokesman for the Polk County Emergency Management Agency.

There are about 200 homes in the neighborhood, which is under a voluntary evacuation.

'Major flooding' likely on Mississippi
The National Weather Service predicted crests of 10 feet above flood stage and higher over the next two weeks. Most of the towns along the Mississippi are protected by levees, but outlying areas could be flooded.

"This is major flooding," weather service hydrologist Karl Sieczynski said of the Mississippi.

Meteorologist Bill Karins of NBC's WeatherPlus added: "We are in the middle of a historic flood event in the Upper Mississippi Valley. Most major Iowa rivers are cresting at all-time record levels and this water will soon raise the Mississippi River to its second highest levels in recorded history north of St. Louis.

"The Mississippi River predictions for Burlington, Iowa, call for the crest to be a one in 100-200 year flood, second only to the Great Flood of 1993, which was considered a 500-year flood event," he said.

"The story along the Mississippi River will be all the mid-sized and small towns without large levees," he added. "On the consumer side, thousands upon thousands of acres of farmland will be flooded for weeks with incredible crop losses."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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