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Louisiana and Mississippi flooding forces thousands to evacuate

Flood warnings were in effect across the region Monday as many rivers remained dangerously high.

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    A sign marks high water in a flooded section of in Oil City, La., Sunday, March 13, 2016. President Barack Obama has signed an order declaring Louisiana's widespread flooding from heavy rains a major disaster.
    (Lee Celano/The Shreveport Times via AP)
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Widespread flooding in Louisiana and Mississippi has damaged thousands of homes, and the risk of rising water prompted additional evacuations Sunday.

At least four deaths have been reported in Louisiana amid the flooding that began last week, and the National Guard has rescued nearly 3,300 residents. Two fishermen have been missing for days in Mississippi.

Flood warnings were in effect across the region as many rivers remained dangerously high. Also of concern was another line of thunderstorms that hit parts of Oklahoma, Arkansas, northern Louisiana and northern Mississippi on Sunday night, bringing more rain and reports of tornadoes in Arkansas.

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"At this point, any rain will aggravate the flooding situation," Davyon Hill, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Shreveport, said.

Downpours — part of a system that affected Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and Alabama — have submerged roads and cars, washed out bridges and forced residents to flee homes.

In Louisiana, emergency officials said more than 4,958 homes were damaged. That number is expected to rise as more reports come in from areas still battling floodwaters. Mississippi reported that 185 homes were damaged by floodwaters and about 650 homes sustained minor damage.

On Sunday, President Barack Obama signed an order declaring the flooding in Louisiana a major disaster. The president's declaration triggers federal aid for flood victims.

Louisiana Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser said he was worried that many flood victims had not purchased flood insurance.

"A lot of these people I spoke to did not have flood insurance because they had never flooded before," Nungesser said in a telephone interview.

He warned that residents may not get federal disaster aid if they didn't have insurance. "It's not going to be the open check book," he added.

Authorities in Louisiana's Natchitoches Parish said Harold Worsham, 78, drowned while trying to flee floodwaters on Saline Bayou. The sheriff's office said Worsham was in a boat that capsized as he and two others were moving items from a home onto an aluminum boat. At least three others have died in the state.

On Sunday, Mississippi officials said they were still looking for two missing fishermen but had no reports of injuries or deaths there.

Flooding on rain-swollen rivers remained a major concern.

It's the most widespread non-hurricane flooding the Louisiana National Guard has ever dealt with, said Col. Pete Schneider, a guard spokesman.

The National Guard said it had about 1,400 soldiers and air crews at work in flooded areas throughout Louisiana, deploying in high-water vehicles, boats and three helicopters. By Sunday morning, National Guard crews had evacuated more than 3,295 people and 316 pets as part of its round-the-clock operations.

Sunday night, officials said reports of a breached levee prompted evacuations in a rural northeastern Louisiana community, but residents were allowed to return to their homes after flooding was less severe than expected.

Caldwell Parish Sheriff's Deputy Jack McKeithen said the department began evacuating residents in rural Hebert, a community of between 1,500-2,000 residents, after receiving word Sunday evening that a levee was topped and 2-4 feet of water could be headed for the area.

McKeithen told The Associated Press that after authorities realized several hours later the influx of water would be far less severe, residents were allowed back.

In the adjacent Richland Parish, Director of Homeland Security Dawn Williams told The News-Star the parish jail was evacuated as a precaution.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that heavy rains and snow in California and the South this weekend can be traced back to the El Niño-driven weather pattern. 

El Niño patterns typically hit the Deep South with cool, wetter-than-average weather during the late winter and spring months when the jet stream shifts, leaving an unusually deep trough of air pressure to transport storms from the Gulf of Mexico. The likelihood of extreme, wet weather between January and March increases by twofold during an El Niño year, according to the National Weather Service's Jackson, Miss., office. 

Although locals were expecting some rain, many hurried back to flooding homes to collect belongings because the severity caught them by surprise. 

"We'd heard we'd get a lot of rain, but it all came so sudden," Brenda Maddox, who left her Louisiana home of 25 years with her husband when flooding began, told the AP. "We hate to leave, but we thought we'd get out while we can."

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