Flooding rivers across Iowa forced residents to evacuate, with at least 10,000 people in Cedar Rapids among them as the rising Cedar River burst through an earthen levee.
Iowa Gov. Chet Culver said storm and water damage to infrastructure will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, as dozens of bridges have been damaged or destroyed. Nine rivers were at or near record levels, he said. More rain has been forecast for the coming days.
"It hits everything. Colleges are shut down, stores, it's devastating," said Lisa Fox, vice president of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry.
"Cedar Rapids is completely shut down," she said of Iowa's second-largest city, where around 100 city blocks were flooded and a rail bridge collapsed. "It's going to be a long-term recovery."
The evacuations in Cedar Rapids, population 120,000, followed a round earlier Thursday when some residents of Iowa City and Cedar Bluffs were also told to head for higher ground.
Cedar Rapids' power is out for most of downtown, complicating rescue efforts, city spokesman Dave Koch told NBC News.
"We’re seeing very substantial flooding," added Craig Hanson, the city’s public works maintenance manager.
Cedar Rapids firemen have been organizing boat rescues of stranded residents, Koch said.
The new evacuations follow a 150-foot breach in an earthen levee early Thursday.
If flooding continues, Koch said, Highway 30 will likely be shut down where it intersects the Cedar River.
The Cedar and other rivers across flood-ravaged Iowa continue to rise after more rain overnight and into Thursday.
5 inches overnight
Storms brought up to 5 inches of rain across west central Iowa early Thursday — primarily in the Raccoon River basin.
The Raccoon River meets the Des Moines River in downtown Des Moines.
An army of sandbagging volunteers continued to wage a battle against the state's rising rivers. Gov. Chet Culver has declared 55 of the state's 99 counties as disaster areas. Nine rivers are at or above historic flood levels.
Meteorologist Rod Donavon of the National Weather Service said the water flowing into the Raccoon River "is a concern" as it makes its way toward Des Moines.
Hundreds of people in Cedar Rapids and small towns evacuated on Wednesday. A tornado in the western part of Iowa late Wednesday killed four Boy Scouts and injured dozens.
"This has been a remarkable onslaught of weather — everything from flooding, unbelievable rain and of course tornadoes — all descending at once," Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff told reporters near the scout camp.
Chertoff said government relief would be forthcoming but the department also needed to keep some resources in reserve with the onset of hurricane season.
Officials hoped sandbags would hold back floodwaters slowly moving south and eventually into the Mighty Mississippi.
In the town of Vinton Wednesday, inmates in black-and-white striped uniforms were rescued from a jail by boat as the raging Cedar River flooded the town and forced evacuations, there and in nearby Waterloo.
Officials in Wisconsin also monitored dams and high water in Indiana burst a levee Wednesday, flooding a vast stretch of farmland. In Minnesota and North Dakota, strong winds closed a highway.
Along the Mississippi River in Missouri and Illinois, the National Weather Service predicted the worst flooding in 15 years. Outlying areas could be inundated, but most of the towns are protected by levees and many low-lying property owners were bought out after massive flooding in 1993, officials said.
This year's spring deluge led some to compare it to the disaster of 1993 when the Mississippi River and its tributaries turned parts of the nation's midsection into a gigantic lake.
Corn prices hit a record high again Thursday and the short-term outlook did not look good.
"The only thing changing with this weather pattern is that we're going from wet and mild to wet and cool," said Mike Palmerino, forecaster with DTN Meteorlogix.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it was closing locks and dams on 200 miles of the upper portion of the vital commercial waterway on Thursday, possibly through early July. The locks must be closed to remove and store electric motors that move lock gates and control valves, the corps said.
'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.
The river was 1.5 feet above flood stage Wednesday at St. Louis, on its way to 5.6 feet above.
"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."