MICHELE NORRIS, host:
In the Midwest, flood waters are still rising, forcing thousands of people to evacuate their homes. The most widespread damage is in Iowa, where several rivers have topped record flood levels. Iowa Governor Chet Culver has declared 83 of the states 99 counties disaster areas. He puts the cost of flood damage in the billions.
Governor CHET CULVER (Democrat, Iowa): There's a state of emergency across the many parts of our state. And obviously here in Cedar Rapids is a place where we are extremely concerned for all the residents in this area and that is why we are here.
NORRIS: The Des Moines River is expected to crest tonight. Earlier today authorities there issued a voluntary evacuation order, but the hardest hit city thus far is Cedar Rapids, and that's where NPR's David Schaper is now.
David, we're going to talk about Cedar Rapids in a second. But first let's talk about the situation in Iowa's capital city, Des Moines; what's happening there?
DAVID SCHAPER: Well, Des Moines officials are expecting the Des Moines River and the Raccoon River, which is one of rivers that feeds into the Des Moines River - both of those to crest tonight at about 8:00 p.m. And earlier than they had first thought - they didn't think it was going to happen until the weekend. And that's a little bit of good news, I think. But the crest will be very close to the top of the levees that are protecting city neighborhoods.
Police have asked all Des Moines residents in the area, within a 500-year floodplain, to evacuate by 6:00 tonight. That's an area designated by a - that should have a flood of this magnitude just once every 500 years. And that gives you a sense of the magnitude of how much water is flowing across of Iowa right now. The Iowa National Guard and volunteers are working around the clock to shore up those levees. Des Moines is a big city, 200,000 people. It's the state capital, and if those levees don't hold, the damage could be just devastating.
NORRIS: Now, the rivers in Des Moines are only a couple of those that are reaching record flood stages; another is the Cedar River. What's happening with the Cedar River?
SCHAPER: Well, the Cedar River has overflowed its banks to a magnitude that no one here has ever seen before. It's incredible. I'm actually standing on a hill on First Avenue - this is the main street that cuts through the heart of downtown Cedar Rapids - and it's a, I'm a block away from where the water begins. The water begins at 12th Street, the river's edges is zero. So this is, you know, a mile and a half from where the river's edge normally would be.
There are more than 400 city blocks reportedly under water right now. And the scope of the devastation is just tremendous. There are still untold fire crews using boats to evacuate some people who never were able to get out of their homes.
NORRIS: And I gather a hospital had to be evacuated in Cedar Rapids?
SCHAPER: There's a hospital that sandbagging efforts went around the clock, 24 hours up until this morning. I was with some of those sandbagging crews yesterday. They are just working feverishly to fill sandbags and keep the water from entering Mercy Medical Center here in Cedar Rapids. They just couldn't do it. The water came up too high, it started sipping in through these sandbag levees that they created and they had to evacuate the hospital and move 176 patients to higher ground.
NORRIS: Okay, David, thanks so much. That's NPR's David Schaper in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
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