STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Much of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is under water this morning. That state has been hit hard by floodwaters that are rising in much of the Midwest. Storms have been dumping even more rain into already overflowing rivers and streams. Iowa's Governor Chet Culver has declared more than half of the state's 99 counties to be disaster areas.
NPR's David Schaper visited Cedar Rapids, where more than 3,000 homes have been evacuated.
DAVID SCHAPER: The Cedar River has overflowed its banks like never before, inundating the city of about 125,000 with surging, brown, murky water. The river is now flowing over every bridge through town but one. And its raging waters collapsed part of a railroad bridge, and with it 20 railcars that had been loaded with rocks to try to weigh it down. Officials estimate more than 100 blocks in and around the downtown area are passable now only by boat. The few cars left behind are completely submerged. Thousands had to be evacuated from their homes, including Larry Starr(ph).
Mr. LARRY STARR: It started flooding last night. Then this morning, about 6 o'clock, we fell back asleep. Phyllis, our neighbor, came down and knocked on the door, and we waded out in knee-high water.
SCHAPER: Now from what he's seen on television and been told by friends, Starr says his home is under at least 5 feet of water, and his neighborhood?
Mr. STARR: The Dairy Queen down there. You see it?
SCHAPER: No, I haven't seen it.
Mr. STARR: You can't. The whole downtown is just gone. And you'd have never believed that last night. Never.
SCHAPER: The Cedar River rose higher and more quickly than expected, leading to a somewhat frantic sandbagging effort in a downtown Cedar Rapids parking lot. Volunteers, including Dennis Coleston(ph), used shovels to dig into a mountain of sand.
Mr. DAVID COLESTON (Volunteer): Well, we're all from Mercy Medical Center. Our hospital's right over there, two blocks. The water's coming up, and it's starting to flood the front part of the hospital.
SCHAPER: So how close is the water?
Mr. COLESTON: It's there.
SCHAPER: To the hospital?
Mr. COLESTON: It's there.
SCHAPER: That sandbagging effort continued well into the night. And though the river kept rising, lapping at the door, by nightfall the hospital remained dry, powered by a back-up generator. Power outages are widespread in and around Cedar Rapids. At least one power plant is partially submerged. And utility officials say it may take a week or more to fully restore electricity. The water and sewer systems are weakening, too, but they remain working. Rescue crews used motor boats to evacuate the few who held out too long to safely evacuate on their own, and the Red Cross set up shelters for those with no place else to go.
The Cedar is one of nine rivers in eastern Iowa that has risen to or above historic flood levels - remarkable and frightening to see for many longtime residents here, like Kevin Hack, a mover who volunteered himself and his truck to take sandbags to downtown buildings that many thought the floodwaters would never reach.
Mr. KEVIN HACK (Volunteer): Well, as you can see, the water's surging right behind you again, coming up. We're just trying to do the best we can. We don't know how much further it's going to come up. I've never - I've lived here for 43 years; I've never seen it like this.
SCHAPER: What makes it so difficult to know exactly how far these flood waters will go, and when exactly the Cedar River will crest, is this: It's still raining hard. And more rain is possible this weekend.
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SCHAPER: David Schaper, NPR News, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
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