(Reuters) - Residents of towns in far southern Illinois anxiously awaited flood waters from the swollen Mississippi River to peak on Sunday, with hundreds electing to remain in their homes, as states downstream prepared for the rising waters.
The National Weather Service on Sunday canceled a flash flood watch for three southern Illinois counties, where record or near-record river levels had threatened to breach levees.
Days of downpours totaling 10 inches or more in spots pushed the Mississippi and smaller rivers over their banks in several states. At least 31 people have died in Missouri, Illinois, Oklahoma and Arkansas, most of them after vehicles drove into flooded areas.
Nine people have died in the Illinois flooding and a dozen counties have been declared disaster areas there, said Patti Thompson, spokeswoman for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.
Several hundred residents near breaches in a levee in hard-hit Alexander County in southern Illinois chose to stay put rather than leave their homes as a precaution, Thompson said.
Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner planned to continue surveying flood-damaged communities on Sunday after touring several hard-hit areas the previous day.
The Mississippi receded further from dangerous levels at St. Louis and farther south at Thebes, Illinois, and Cape Girardeau, Missouri, on Sunday, the NWS said, while the Ohio River was cresting at Cairo, Illinois. The Mississippi and Ohio rivers meet at Cairo.
Significant flooding was expected into mid-January along the Mississippi River at points downstream, from Tennessee to Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana.
"I hope it's going to slow down," said Kristy Morgan, an assistant manager of Little General Marathon Gas in Tiptonville, a small city in the northwest corner of Tennessee.
"All I know is they have been working around the clock doing sand-bagging," Morgan said of city and county personnel and emergency agencies in the area.
The river is expected to crest at the moderate flood stage on Thursday in Memphis, Tennessee, according to the NWS. In Louisiana, where crests at some points along the river are not expected until mid-January, officials are checking levees daily.
The river is expected to reach major flood stage at all of the measuring points from Arkansas City, Arkansas, to Natchez, Mississippi, the NWS said. Much of the area is covered by levees, though islands and camps inside the levees would be expected to flood, the NWS said.
With the Mississippi River reaching high stages, feeder rivers could be expected to see some backup flooding, the NWS said.
Exxon Mobil Corp said its 340,000 barrel-per-day refined products terminal in Memphis remained closed. On Friday the company decided to shut the terminal, just south of downtown, as floodwaters threatened to inundate it.
(Reporting by David Bailey in Minneapolis, Erwin Seba in Houston and Tim Ghianni in Nashville; Editing by Dan Grebler)