By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Heavy rains and flooding brought havoc to the Chicago area on Thursday, shutting expressways, delaying commuter trains, cancelling flights, flooding basements and closing many suburban schools.
The National Weather Service issued flash flood warnings lasting into the evening for the entire Chicago area. Between three and seven inches of rain fell throughout the area in the last 24 hours and more was expected, and area rivers continued to rise, according to the weather service.
Flooding shut parts of three major expressways in and out of the city Thursday morning. Many arterial streets and highway ramps remained blocked Thursday afternoon, and police recommended that people limit travel, if possible, during the evening commute.
Major flooding was affecting parts of Des Plaines, Fox, Illinois and DuPage rivers, according to the weather service. The north branch of the Chicago River is already at levels not seen since the major flooding of September 2008, the service said.
Governor Pat Quinn declared a state of emergency for Illinois.
"Our experts at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources are very concerned about the next few days, that certain rivers in our state are at record levels with respect to flooding that we've never seen before," Quinn told a news conference in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst.
Chicago-area residents have posted photos on social media sites like Facebook of people paddling canoes and inflatable rafts along residential streets. The Chicago Department of Water Management was working to control flooding along the Chicago River on the city's northwest side, using sandbags and setting up concrete barriers.
"This has been an extraordinary storm," said Tom Powers, the department commissioner.
O'Hare International Airport reported 600 flight cancellations Thursday afternoon. Brookfield Zoo, just west of Chicago, closed for only the third time in its 79-year history due to the weather.
The DuPage County Sheriff's Office was using boats to evacuate people from an apartment complex in a western suburb of Chicago. No injuries were reported at the complex.
ComEd, a division of Exelon, reported 8,210 Chicago-area customers without power on Thursday afternoon, down from 21,000, according to spokeswoman Krissy Posey.
On the city's South Side, a sinkhole swallowed three cars on a residential street. One person was hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries, police said. City officials blamed a 98-year-old old water main that gave out.
In suburban Oak Brook, a body was found floating in the Salt Creek River. The DuPage County Sheriff's Office had no further information about the death. The suburb got nearly 7 inches of rain in 24 hours, the most in Illinois, according to the National Weather Service.
The stormy weather was also affecting other parts of the country, including West, Texas, where emergency workers were responding to a fiery, fatal explosion at a fertilizer plant.
A risk of severe thunderstorms was predicted into the evening on Thursday for parts of Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana, according to the NWS Storm Prediction Center.
A spokesman for Metra, the Chicago commuter rail service, said three Union Pacific lines suffered severe delays due to a loss of power at a "complex set of switches" outside a major downtown train station after a lightning strike.
A multi-car accident on I-294 in Cook County resulted in two fatalities early on Thursday, according to Illinois State Police. It was not immediately known if the accident was weather-related, but it had been raining heavily at the time.
NWS meteorologist Amy Seeley said the amount of rain was "unusual" for the Chicago area, even for April, usually a rainy month.
The weather was starting to clear up - with light rains predicted the rest of the day and on Friday, Seeley said. Temperatures were expected to plunge to a low of 33 degrees Friday, from 62 degrees Thursday afternoon.
(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski and Nick Carey; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Gunna Dickson, Kevin Gray, Sofina Mirza-Reid and Cynthia Johnston)