Missouri's Black River levee fails. Where floodwaters could hit next.
Residents along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers brace for a pair of crests that could bring record floods. In Missouri, 1,000 flee the overflowing Black River after 15 inches of rain in four days.
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The challenge presented by a pair of closely-spaced, slow-moving crests is that they tend to back water up behind them, prolonging the time that levees are under stress and that communities upstream continue to face flood conditions, says the National Weather Service's Schwein.Skip to next paragraph
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To be sure, the Midwest and Upper Plains states are no strangers to severe spring floods. This year's flooding, however, is the culmination of a hydrological "perfect storm," meteorologists say.
Heavy snow with high moisture content blanketed much of the northern US this past winter, with temperatures cold enough to keep the ground frozen well into melt season. The snow began melting before the ground could thaw and absorb the meltwater. Instead the water flowed straight into the streams and larger tributaries that feed rivers such as the upper Mississippi and the Red River of the North.
Ms. Schwein notes that the situation along these rivers could have been worse. In the north, some of the spring precipitation has come as snow, rather than rain. Because the snow takes time to melt, the additional water is introduced into the region more gradually than if the precipitation had come as rain.
As heavy spring floodwaters moved through upper Mississippi basin and into the storied river itself, a series of powerful storm systems moved through the country to the south, dumping heavy rains on soils that quickly became saturated. The storms also have triggered flash floods in the Ozarks, as well as in parts of western Kentucky and southern Illinois.
As of Tuesday afternoon, tornado watches had been posted for a stretch of the country running from northeastern Texas through western Tennessee, and from the northern half of Indiana through much of lower Michigan. Flood and flash-flood watches covered much of the same area.
Flooding is setback for farmers
April's onslaught is taking a toll not only on homes and businesses along the nation's inland waterways. The floods are striking at the country's farmers as well.
Jeff Scates, who along with 11 other family members farms 15,000 acres near Shawneetown in southern Illinois, says that before the rains came, he had 30 percent of his corn crop planted.
But the heavy rains changed that.
"In a few days, we'll be about 15 percent planted," he says, noting that the rest of his pre-rain efforts have fallen casualty to the storms and flooding. "Normally, we'd like to be about 50 percent planted by now."
Within the next two days, the Ohio River at Old Shawneetown, not far away, is expected to reach 55 feet above flood stage, the fourth highest level on record there.
"That's about a half inch below the second-highest level on record," he adds.
Nationally, corn-planting is far behind schedule, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Typically, over the past five years, farmers have seeded an average 23 percent of their corn crop by now. Last year that number reached 46 percent. This year, the wet weather has allowed farmers to plant only about 9 percent of their planned corn acreage. Some agriculture economists say they suspect that even the 9 percent figure could be too high.
Corn represents about 60 percent of his family's plantings, Mr. Scates says. With May around the corner, it's unclear whether the ground will dry fast enough – and stay dry long enough – to get seeds into the ground. After about May 20, he says, each additional day's delay in planting means another 1 percent loss in crop yield.