Thousands flee as floods inundate U.S. Midwest cities

Officials in Iowa's largest city, Des Moines, have issued an evacuation order for large areas of the city as floods continue to spread across U.S. midwestern states.

Officials in Iowa irritated at '100-year flood every 4 years'

Officials in Des Moines, the state of Iowa's capital and largest city, issued voluntary evacuation orders Friday to people living downtown and near levees along the banks of the cresting Des Moines River.

Days of heavy rain across the U.S. Midwest have swollen rivers in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Kansas and Michigan. Thousands have already fled their homes before the surging flood waters.

The Des Moines River was just centimetres below the tops of levees, officials said, while urging downtown businesses to shut and people living in flood-prone areas to move to higher ground. 

Severe weather has plagued the state all this week.

A tornado struck a boy scout camp in central Iowa Wednesday, killing four people and forcing dozens to flee for their lives.

On Thursday, the Cedar River in eastern Iowa poured over its banks. forcing the evacuation of more than 3,000 homes, causing a railroad bridge to collapse and leaving cars under water on downtown streets.

Officials estimated that 100 blocks were under water in the town of Cedar Rapids, where several days of sandbagging work could not hold back the rain-swollen river. Rescuers used 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.

Officials estimated that 3,200 homes were evacuated and some 8,000 residents displaced. Disabled and elderly residents of a downtown hospital and nursing home in downtown Cedar Rapids had to be moved by emergency crews, officials said.

Residents were already steeling themselves for floods before storms late Wednesday and early Thursday brought up to 127 millimetres of rain across west central Iowa.

Unprecedented river levels

"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."

Gov. Chet Culver has declared 55 of the state's 99 counties as state disaster areas.

In Cedar Rapids, a city of about 124,000, flood waters downtown neared the top of stop signs and cars were nearly covered in water. It wasn't clear just how high the river had risen because a flood gauge was swept away by the swirling water.

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.

Prisoners had to be moved from the jail in Linn County, which includes Cedar Rapids. The sheriff's office also was under water, Zeller said. Several emergency shelters were opened, and the city had closed all but one of its bridges over the Cedar River.

"I believe that this is God's way of doing things, and I've got insurance, so I'm not worried about it," said Tim Grimm, who was forced to leave his home in the city's Czech Village area.

'We're having the 100-year flood every 4 years'

At least two deaths are being reported in flood-related traffic accidents in neighbouring Minnesota, police said.

In Austin, Minn., the Cedar River crested 2.3 metres above flood stage, slightly below a 2004 flood that caused major damage in the city.

"It seems like we're having the hundred-year flood every four years. It's absurd," said Mark Dulitz, who had 10 centimetres of water in his basement and a ring of sandbags around his house.

The flood waters claimed the life of a man whose vehicle became submerged when the road washed out from under it just west of Austin.

Flooding this week also caused damage across southern Wisconsin, where thunderstorms continued pounding the area on Thursday.

Power was shut off to hundreds of people in the Wisconsin village of Avoca, west of Madison, and they were urged to leave their homes after the Wisconsin River and other streams flooded, said Chief Deputy Jon Pepper of the Iowa County sheriff's department.

The weather service issued flash flood watches for southern Wisconsin with tornado watches in central and eastern areas. Several tornadoes briefly touched down, but no injuries were reported.

Missouri bracing itself, sandbagging

Violent thunderstorms Thursday night rattled Michigan's northern Lower Peninsula, where tornado watches and warnings were in effect.

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 cellphone, 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 next Wednesday.

With files from the Associated Press