Photos: Iowa flooding

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  1. Emergency crews search an area of Altoona, Des Moines, Iowa, Wednesday, near where three cars with 11 people inside were washed away by rapidly rising flood waters. (Tom Alex / Des Moines Register) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Emergency crews seen near NE 54th Avenue and NE 80th Street, Altoona, as the search continued. (Tom Alex / Des Moines Register) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Rescuers walk in Mud Creek, which a local golf course owner said had swollen from about 10 yards across to a raging torrent 100 yards wide. (Tom Alex / Des Moines Register) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Ten people were rescued from Mud Creek, with firefighters and other emergency service personnel throwing ropes and buoyancy aids, and picking up others in boats. (Tom Alex / Des Moines Register) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Firefighters, police and medical services were all involved in the search operation along the swollen creek. (Tom Alex / Des Moines Register) Back to slideshow navigation
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msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 8/11/2010 7:54:53 PM ET 2010-08-11T23:54:53

A 16-year-old girl died Wednesday when raging floodwaters swept three cars off a road near Des Moines, and hundreds had to evacuate their homes as widespread flooding struck Iowa after three nights of rain.

In Ames, flooding contributed to a water main break that forced the city to shut off water to its roughly 55,000 residents and left Iowa State University's basketball arena under 4 to 5 feet of water.

Rivers and creeks rose after storms dumped 2 to 4 inches of rain on central and eastern Iowa over night Wednesday, with 6 inches in some spots, the National Weather Service said. A snowy winter and wet spring and summer "set the stage" for the flooding, but the recent storms were the big problem, weather service meteorologist Jim Lee said.

"The bulk of this has been caused by those recent extreme rainfalls, especially back-to-back-to-back," he said.

Divers found the body of Jessica Nichole Webb, of Altoona, near the submerged cars in Mud Creek about 2:20 p.m., more than 10 hours after she disappeared. Authorities said fast-moving water hindered their search efforts earlier in the day.

10 people clung to trees, logs
The cars were swept off the road between Altoona and Mitchellville about 4 a.m. Rescuers found 10 of the 11 passengers clinging to trees and hanging onto logs. Four were taken to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries.

Firefighters, police and other emergency services went to the scene at Mud Creek after tracing a 911 call. "A female called crying for help. Then, we lost connection," Doug Phillips, division chief with the Polk County Sheriff, told the Des Moines Register.

Rescuers threw ropes and buoyancy aids to some victims and picked up others in boats, Altoona Fire Department Capt. Ryan Young told msnbc.com.

"From what I understand, they were traveling down the road and didn't realize the water was over the road and their cars got swept away," Young said.

"Most exited their vehicles and were swept away from their vehicles. Some were hanging off trees along the creek, some were pushed into cornfields."

DesMoinesRegister.com quoted one of the survivors as saying he was in the backseat of the third car that was swept away and that the car was submerged in 10 to 15 seconds.

"I was out of breath. I was underwater. I was just trying to get to the top," said Brandon Turner, 20, of Des Moines. He said he managed to get out and pull another passenger out too.

Joe Riding, an Altoona councilman who owns a golf course, Terrace Hills, on the banks of Mud Creek, said it was swollen to about 10 times its normal size.

"This morning it was about 100 yards wide, instead of about 10 yards wide," he told msnbc.com. "In the middle, it’s a rushing torrent."

He keeps a record of rainfall to help manage the course and said 32 inches of water had fallen since June 2, with 3 inches Wednesday morning alone.

“We’ve had just an exorbitant amount of rain really all year," fellow Altoona councilman Kyle Mertz told msnbc.com. "We’ve had the wettest year to date, whether it’s snow or rain, up to this point."

Phillips said the creek is usually only 3 feet deep and 10 feet wide but early Wednesday morning, "it looked like a river."

Evacuations along another creek
Hundreds of residents in one Des Moines neighborhood were asked to leave Wednesday afternoon because of flooding by Four Mile Creek, and utility workers turned off natural gas and electric service to homes. A shelter was opened at an elementary school, and police said everyone needed to leave immediately.

"It's such a serious and dangerous situation any time there is water around these homes because of the electricity and gas," Police Sgt. Lori Lavorato said.

In Ames, about 30 miles north of Des Moines, officials shut off the city's water supply at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday after saturated soil shifted under flooded Squaw Creek, causing a buried 24-inch main to fail. The break drained a city water tower, dropping pressure in the distribution system and raising the possibility the system's water could become contaminated.

Officials warned anyone who still had access to water to boil it before consuming it. They said repairs could take up to 24 hours, and it might be a week before the water was safe to drink.

Several hundred Ames residents were evacuated from their homes after 3 to 5 inches of rain pushed Squaw Creek and Skunk River over their banks, Fire Chief Clint Petersen said. In some spots, water was up to car windshields.

The floor at Hilton Coliseum, Iowa State's basketball arena, was covered with up to 5 feet of water, school spokesman John McCarroll said. It was too soon to know how much damage had been done, he said.

Jack Trice football stadium was still dry, surrounded by sandbags football players had stacked as a precaution.

But the parking lot between the two stadiums, where tailgaters party before games, was flooded.

"I hope they get it cleared out by football season," student Sam Stonehocker said.

In all, eight campus buildings had flood damage, McCarroll said.

The Iowa Department of Transportation closed Interstate 35 just south of Ames and both lanes of U.S. Highway 30 in the area were closed.

Elsewhere in Ames, Howe's Welding and Metal Fab had several feet of water inside it, even though the owners had been sandbagging all night. Piper Wall, whose husband owns the business, said it was difficult to assess the damage while the water remained, but it appeared worse than in 1993, when much of the area was underwater.

"It will be when all this comes out and all the mud that remains and the machining tools and electric stuff that's not high enough," Wall said. "In 1993, it was $150,000 and this year it's higher."

Downriver from Ames, the town of Colfax was nearly cut off by the rising Skunk River. Roads were covered by water, and people used boats to help neighbors move to higher ground.

Colfax Mayor David Mast said he expected more than 200 homes would flood, and some were already inundated with about 4 feet of water. City officials had asked at least 300 residents on the west side of town to move to higher ground, Mast said.

After Heather Kern was asked to leave at 12:30 a.m., she rushed to move possessions out of the home she shared with her husband, two children and three other relatives. When sirens sounds a few hours later, the family had to evacuate.

Kern's basement was flooded, and water was inching into the first floor with waste-high water in the backyard.

"I feel blessed that we have our lives," Kern said. "We don't know where we're going to live or where we're going to stay, but we have our lives."

Colfax flooded in 1993, when the Skunk River reached a record of over 21.5 feet, more than 4 feet over flood stage. The river on Wednesday was 22.5 and still rising.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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