Volunteers worked into the night to stack sandbags against rising Midwest floodwaters and evacuate people in its path — or rescue those already under water — after a powerful spring storm system unleashed downpours from Oklahoma to Michigan.
Rivers across Illinois, Iowa and Missouri was expected to rise for several days as the water moves downstream, contributing to a major flood on the Mississippi River between Davenport, Iowa, and Chester, Ill., that won't crest until the weekend or early next week, National Weather Service hydrologist Steve Buan said. The Illinois River in northern and central Illinois was rising, forcing one small-town hospital to evacuate patients. The Grand River and its tributaries in southwestern lower Michigan were overflowing, with workers using inflatable boats to rescue some people.
"It's really just all over," Buan said. "We're talking about a very significant weather system that laid down a very large carpet" from Wednesday night into Thursday.
Some of the worst flooding was in the Chicago area, where up to 7 inches fell within 24 hours Wednesday night and Thursday, Buan said. The Des Plaines River in suburban Riverside was expected to crest overnight Thursday at a record 10.6 feet above flood stage, almost a foot over the previous record, set in 1987, and the fire department warned residents in low-lying areas to leave their homes or risk being trapped.
In suburban Chicago, Nick Ariano helped rescue a friend's grandmother, who became trapped in a home filling with water after a branch of the flooding DuPage River spilled over its levee.
Ariano, his friend and another man raced to a sporting goods store to buy inflatable rafts, then paddled out to the home and got Mille Andrzejewski, in her mid-80s, to safety. The three friends got some enjoyment out of the raft ride, despite the eeriness of floating over submerged cars and mailboxes.
"As kids growing up, we used to raft down the river," Ariano said with a laugh.
About 60 miles southwest of Chicago, a Grundy County hospital evacuated 47 patients after a nearby creek and the Illinois River rose and water crept into the basement, spokeswoman Janet Long said. Elective surgeries scheduled for Friday were canceled, although the emergency department remained open, the hospital said on its website.
Perhaps the storm's most bizarre scene came in Chicago, where a massive sinkhole opened and swallowed two parked cars and one that was driving through. The driver was hospitalized but was expected to survive.
The massive storm system that wreaked havoc from the Rockies to the Rust Belt — including dumping snow in some states— was blamed for several deaths, including that of an 80-year-old eastern Missouri woman who died after floodwater swept her car off a creek-side road and a 16-year-old Minnesota boy who was killed went he lost control of her car on snow-covered Interstate 94 near Minneapolis. Police in Grand Haven, Mich., were trying to identify a man whose body was found in the Grand River where it enters Lake Michigan.
Snow and ice closed highways in Colorado and Wyoming. Tornadoes caused scattered damage in Oklahoma. Rain caused a sinkhole that devoured three cars in Chicago.
But that was just a nasty prelude to the flooding that is coming to many areas.
National Weather Service hydrologists are projecting major flooding along several smaller rivers, such as the Skunk at Sigourney, Iowa, the Des Moines at Keosauqua, Iowa, the Spoon at London Mills, Ill., and the North River at Palmyra, Mo. The Illinois River, a major tributary of the Mississippi, will have major flooding for the next week to 10 days, as will the Rock River in western Illinois, Buan said.
Meanwhile, the Mississippi and Missouri rivers were already at flood stage and rising fast. Hannibal, Mo., Mark Twain's hometown, was facing a crest of about 12 feet above flood stage by early Sunday. A flood levee protects the historic downtown but several roads and thousands of acres of farmland will be under water.
Other cities big and small along the river were threatened.
In Clarksville, Mo., a small, scenic Mississippi River town about 60 miles north of St. Louis, some 100 people were working feverishly to build a makeshift levee of gravel, plastic overlap and sandbags in a bid keep downtown dry. The heavy rain caused a sudden surge in the river, with a crest expected by early Sunday.
"I'm confident it will work, but I'm not confident we're going to get it done in time," Clarksville resident Richard Cottrell, 64, said of the sandbag levee. "It's a race against the clock."
At Burlington, Iowa, the Mississippi River was at 17.1 feet Thursday morning, more than two feet above flood stage, or when the river first tops its banks. It was expected to rise to above 22 feet by Sunday evening before receding. It was expected to crest about 10 feet above flood stage in St. Louis, and in southeast Missouri's Cape Girardeau. Little damage was expected; most of St. Louis sits back from the river, though the street in front of the Gateway Arch would likely be closed. Cape Girardeau is protected by a flood wall.
The Missouri River was expected to crest up to 10 feet above flood stage at several Missouri towns.
The National Weather Service in Indianapolis issued a flood warning for Tippecanoe County and part of Carroll County because of rising waters from the Wabash River. The weather service said 2 inches of rain had fallen across the area Thursday, and as much as 1 inch of rainfall was possible during the evening.
The Grand River is expected to crest Monday about 6 feet over flood stage in the Grand Rapids, Mich., area on Monday. The Saginaw River, in eastern Michigan, was 2.8 feet above flood stage Thursday and expected to crest 5.8 feet over the weekend, while the Pine River was 2.1 feet over flood stage at Alma. Water levels could keep rising as up to 4 inches of rain fall on parts of the state through Friday, the weather service said.
The storm system threatened to bring its mix of hard rains, high winds and severe thunderstorms to the East by the weekend. It will thin out as it heads east but could still spell trouble in the Appalachian Mountain region Friday and in some spots along the East Coast by Friday night, the weather service said.
Despite the headaches, there is a silver lining from all the rain: It has helped further alleviate drought conditions in some of the major crop-growing states, including Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota and Wisconsin, according to a weekly drought monitor. Small portions of Nebraska also saw improvement.
Now farmers are hoping for a dry spell to allow them to get into the fields for spring planting.