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Iowa river has swamped 400 city blocks

Cedar Rapids, Iowa, had hoped the worst would be over by Friday, but instead the Cedar River keeps rising and has now swamped more than 400 blocks and forced thousands to flee.
/ Source: NBC News and news services

This city had hoped the worst would be over by Friday, but instead the Cedar River keeps rising and has now swamped more than 400 blocks and forced thousands to flee. In Des Moines, meanwhile, officials issued a voluntary evacuation order as the Des Moine River neared the tops of levees.

Cedar Rapids officials earlier said 100 blocks were underwater, but that number rose to at least 438 city blocks in downtown by midday Friday. There was more flooding outside of downtown, but authorities don't know what widespread it is.

Officials earlier evacuated patients from a Cedar Rapids hospital as the rising waters from the Cedar River confounded the city's best efforts to secure the downtown area. Much of the Midwest remained under threat of more severe weather, with yet another storm front moving through Kansas, Missouri and Wisconsin.

In Cedar Falls, officials early Friday had hoped the Cedar River would crest Friday at about 31.8 feet, but NBC's Kevin Tibbles later reported from the city that officials now fear it won't crest until the weekend, with a predicted crest of 33 feet.

The water has been rising about two inches an hour, Tibbles added.

The river was at 30.9 feet early Friday. In a 1993 flood, considered the worst in recent history, it crested at 19.27 feet.

"We are seeing a historic hydrological event taking place with unprecedented river levels occurring," said 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."

At the Mercy Medical Center in downtown Cedar Rapids, all 176 patients were 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.

I-80 cut off for miles
Flooding also closed Interstate 80 from east of Iowa City to Davenport. The flooded Cedar River crosses the interstate in Cedar County, about 20 miles east of Iowa City.

By late Thursday, Cedar Rapids 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."

In Wisconsin, amphibious vehicles that carry tourists on the Wisconsin River were used to evacuate homes and businesses in Baraboo, north of Madison. Hundreds of people lost power in Avoca, west of Madison, and were "strongly encouraged" to evacuate because of flooding of the Wisconsin River and some streams, said Chief Deputy Jon Pepper of the Iowa County Sheriff's Department.

The rising Fond du Lac River forced hundreds from homes in Fond du Lac.

Violent thunderstorms Thursday and Friday brought widespread flooding to Michigan's Lower Peninsula that authorities said left some roads and bridges unstable or impassable. Authorities in Mason County advised drivers to stay off the roads unless it was an emergency; the county closed or barricaded more than a dozen roadways.

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.

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

Cedar Rapids short of drinking water
Despite all the water in Cedar Rapids, 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."

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.

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.

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

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.

Des Moines still sandbagging
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.