Severe Weather Wreaks Havoc In Midwest, South

The flooding season has arrived in parts of the Midwest and South. It's especially worrisome in southern Illinois and Missouri, where some big rivers are starting to spill over their banks.

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A violent storm system swept across the South and Midwest yesterday and into today. It spawned tornados in parts of Arkansas, Mississippi and other states, killing at least a dozen people.

A relentless rain followed, flooding already swollen rivers and creeks. Thousands of people have been evacuated along the Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi Rivers and their tributaries. And as NPR's David Schaper reports, the worst is yet to come.

DAVID SCHAPER: Already one of the wetter and stormier springs in recent years, the weather in the Midwest and South Central parts of the country keeps getting worse. This latest set of storms moved into central Arkansas late yesterday afternoon, with a tornado tearing through the small town of Vilonia, Arkansas.

Mr. STEPHAN HAWKS (Spokesman, Faulkner County, Arkansas): It's pretty devastating. There are between 14 and 16 homes that have been destroyed, several others that are damaged. The winds snapped the electrical poles like toothpicks.

SCHAPER: Faulkner County spokesman Stephan Hawks says downed trees and power lines made rescues difficult. Authorities there say four people died in Vilonia.

In the northern part of the state, raging floodwaters swept cars and trucks off the roads, killing at least five people. Three were killed in Mississippi, as well.

In western Kentucky, no tornados, but high winds knocked down trees, including one that fell onto the home of Joe Muncy in Murray, Kentucky.

Mr. JOE MUNCY: Yeah, I was awakened last night about 12:15 scared. I mean, I was scared, you know.

SCHAPER: Now flooding in the state is bad and getting worse.

Governor STEVE BESHEAR (Democrat, Kentucky): The Ohio and Mississippi Rivers are forecast to have major flooding with the possibility of historic flooding along the rivers from the Kentucky-Tennessee line on the Mississippi, through the Cairo confluences and all the way up the Ohio River to Smithland, Kentucky.

SCHAPER: That's Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear, who declared an emergency. And there are similar declarations in parts of Indiana, Illinois, Arkansas and in Missouri, where Governor Jay Nixon activated 200 National Guard troops to help in sandbagging and rescue operations along the flooded Black River near the Arkansas border, an area deluged by 15 inches of rain in the past few days.

A thousand residents of Poplar Bluff, Missouri, were told to evacuate yesterday, when floodwaters started topping the levees there. Butler County Sheriff Mark Dobbs says one of the levees breached today, but despite repeated warnings, some residents did not evacuate and had to be rescued by boat.

Sheriff MARK DOBBS (Butler County, Missouri): Had one report from the fire chief that there was an individual even in southern Butler County stranded on top of a house. So, you know, there are some dire situations because some people chose to stay in their homes.

SCHAPER: Now thousands more along the river may need to be evacuated. Missouri's attorney general is going to court to try to block a plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to intentionally blow out an earthen levee along the Mississippi River to divert floodwaters there. He says good farmland could flood, too, and hundreds of Missouri residents could be affected.

More storms are forecast for tonight, and high waters from snow melts up north are still moving down the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri River Valleys, leading the National Weather Service to forecast that the Mississippi won't crest south of Memphis until mid to late May. And when it does, it will likely be at its highest level since 1937.

David Schaper, NPR News.

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