A levee protecting a southeast Missouri town from major flooding held up overnight, although the swollen river pouring over in several spots is threatening to burst through the structure and has already forced the evacuation of about 1,000 area homes, a police official said.
Poplar Bluff deputy police chief Jeff Rolland said early Tuesday that the Black River overran the levee in about 30 locations between Poplar Bluff and the nearby town of Qulin.
"How that hasn't broken through yet, it's a miracle," Rolland said.
Tuesday brought the promise of more showers and thunderstorms to the area, where river swollen rivers are threatening towns in a vast swath of the nation's midsection.
Crews rescued 59 people in 1 1/2 hours late Monday after water spilled over the dam and inundated a section of Poplar Bluff, a town of 17,000 residents that is 130 miles south of St. Louis.
Some 1,000 homes have been evacuated in the area, but in the worst case scenario, a levee breach would force the evacuation of some 6,000 homes from Poplar Bluff to Qulin and destroy or severely damage 500 homes in Poplar bluff and its outskirts, Rolland said. Already, 23 small businesses in the area's flood plain have taken on water, he said.
The hotels in town filled up quickly, and 300 people took shelter at the Black River Coliseum, the 500-seat concert venue in town, Rolland said. No deaths or serious injuries have been reported.
Families forced to flee their homes Monday watched as murky floodwater began creeping into their yards and homes. If the levee were to give way, many of those homes would be left uninhabitable. Sandbagging wasn't an option _ the river, spurred on by 10 inches or more of rain since last week, simply rose too quickly.
"By the time we realized what was happening it was too dangerous to sandbag," Butler County Presiding Commissioner Ed Strenfel said.
Severe storms that began early last week have hammered the nation's midsection without letup. Again Monday, powerful storms ravaged Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Texas, Tennessee and other states. Authorities said at least seven people were killed in Arkansas _ three of them when floodwaters swept two vehicles off of roadways and four when a likely twister tore through the small town of Vilonia.
The storm system was expected to move into Illinois and Wisconsin on Tuesday, said Greg Carbin, a meteorologist with the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. At the same time, a second storm system was expected to start along the same path, bringing several more days of rain, he said.
Governors in Arkansas and Kentucky declared states of emergency. In Kentucky, record flooding is expected over the next few days, partly because of a double-whammy _ both the Ohio and Mississippi rivers significantly above flood stage. Several dozen residents were evacuated from the area of Cairo, Ill., where the rivers converge.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was considering the extraordinary step of intentionally breaching the Birds Point levee in southeast Missouri, just downriver of the confluence, in a bid to reduce the amount of water moving down the Mississippi. The move would soak 130,000 acres of farmland, and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon objected to the idea. A decision was expected Tuesday.
Missouri was still cleaning up from tornado damage in the St. Louis area _ 2,700 buildings, including Lambert Airport, were damaged in the Friday night twister _ when spring flooding went from bad to far worse Monday.
A dam in St. Francois County was in jeopardy of bursting, with a few dozen homes potentially in harm's way. Levees were stressed along the Mississippi River in Pike and Lincoln counties, north of St. Louis.
But by far the biggest concern was Poplar Bluff. The Missouri National Guard sent 200 guardsmen and rescue equipment to the area. Several people had to be rescued by boat, including some who don't live in the flood plain, as heavy rain flooded several streets Monday night.
Police officers spent Monday going door-to-door in the southwest part of town, telling residents to get out. Not everyone did.
Along one road near the levee, children played knee-deep in water. Adults gathered on the porches, seemingly enjoying nature's show.
"I'm not worried. This is my favorite time of the year," 20-year-old Brandon Andrews said, pledging to ride out the flood in his trailer home, even as water lapped against its sides. He didn't have a boat and the water was already too high to drive through, but Andrews said he had been to the store and stocked up on hot dogs, chili and necessities.
Police Chief Danny Whiteley was hoping the water would recede soon enough that flooding would mostly be limited to basements. He wasn't optimistic.
"I guess you'd call it a perfect storm: It's just all come together at once," Whiteley said.
Pinky Mehta reported from Louisville, Ky., Kristi Eaton and Ken Miller in Oklahoma City, Jeannie Nuss in Little Rock, Nomaan Merchant in Vilonia, Ark., and Hasan Dudar in Indianapolis contributed to this report.