Published June 11, 2008
CEDAR FALLS, Iowa – Inmates in black-and-white striped uniforms were rescued from jail by boat Wednesday as the raging Cedar River flooded a small city's downtown and forced evacuations in another town downstream. On the East Coast, officials revealed the weekend heat wave had claimed 17 lives.
From Wisconsin to Missouri, officials in the flood-ravaged Midwest were frantically sandbagging, watching weakened dams and rescuing residents from water that in some places rose knee-high, while storms threatened more damage in the Upper Plains.
Officials in Wisconsin were monitoring dams and high water in Indiana burst a levee, flooding a vast stretch of farmland. In Minnesota and North Dakota, strong winds closed a highway and even sent a cow into the air, a witness said.
Tornadoes touched down in eastern Nebraska and southwestern Minnesota, but there were no immediate reports of major damage.
Along the Mississippi River in Missouri and Illinois, the National Weather Service was predicting the worst flooding in 15 years. Outlying areas could be inundated, but most of the towns are protected by levees and many low-lying property owners were bought out after massive flooding in 1993, officials said.
"Everything is flooded — everything is up to knee-high," said Patrice Calhoun, of Waterloo, Iowa, who rolled up her pants and waded through water to get home Wednesday morning. "You could actually swim in it."
Much of the downtown area in nearby Vinton, Iowa, was flooded, forcing officials to empty the county jail. Five boatloads of inmates dressed in black-and-white striped pants and shirts were floated out of the jail and to safety on higher ground.
Levies were holding in the nearby city of Waterloo, but officials ordered a mandatory evacuation of dozens of homes and businesses along the river because groundwater runoff was backing up at blocked storm drains.
In Cedar Falls, a city of about 35,000 people farther down the Cedar River, officials were relieved that a frantic volunteer sandbagging effort had kept flood waters out of downtown. All the city's bridges over the river, except one, had been closed as a precaution.
"Our volunteers saved this city, but we are still at a critical point" with the river still 10 feet above flood stage, city spokeswoman Susan Staudt said.
Medical examiners along the East Coast revealed Wednesday that a heat wave from Saturday to Tuesday had claimed the lives of 17 people. Most of the victims were elderly.
Eight died in Philadelphia of heat-related causes, six others in New York City, two in Maryland and one in the Philadelphia suburb of Pottstown.
Philadelphia Medical Examiner's Office spokesman Jeff Moran said the tally was not unusual in the city, which is composed largely of tightly packed, brick rowhouses.
In Illinois, officials were scrambling to bring potable water to distribution sites near Lawrenceville, a city of 4,600, and to the state's medium-security Lawrence Correctional Center. A day earlier, two nearby levees failed, turning some farmland into lakes and forcing the evacuation of roughly 200 mostly rural homes.
Lawrence County Sheriff Russell Adams said it remained unclear what made the city's water main stop working sometime Wednesday morning. Officials would have to wait for floodwaters to recede find the problem, he said.
"We don't know how it's broken or where it's broken," Adams said.
The upper Plains were facing strong winds and thunderstorms Wednesday.
In western Minnesota, part of Interstate 94 was closed near Fergus Falls for several hours after winds blew trucks off the road.
Straight-line winds estimated at more than 70 mph destroyed a barn near Valley City, N.D.
Elva Dittmer, 83, said she was looking out the kitchen window during the storm and saw what she thought was a cow flying 10 feet through the air. Her son Ronald Dittmer, who owned the barn, said one cow was injured and another had to be euthanized.
"I've never seen it before and I hope I never see it again," Elva Dittmer said.
In St. Louis, the floating President Casino closed for the second time this year because of flooding on its riverfront access road.
With more rain falling upriver Wednesday in parts of Iowa, crests at Missouri's Mississippi River towns could be higher than currently forecast, said weather service hydrologist Jim Kramper.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers planned to close a series of locks north of St. Louis in the coming days. The locks must be closed to remove and store electric motors that move lock gates and control valves, the corps said.
In Wisconsin, state and local officials monitored dams threatened by the high water from days of storms.
Wisconsin officials planned to let water out of the reservoir behind Primmer Dam in the southwestern part of the state to ease pressure on the weakening structure, said Russell Rasmussen of the Department of Natural Resources.
A levee failed early Wednesday in southwest Indiana near the town of Capehart, flooding several square miles of melon and corn fields near the White River. The water, at points, stretched to the horizon in all directions.
Rod Healy and his family have refused to leave their turkey farm near Washington, about 100 miles southwest of Indianapolis, even though his house is like an island in the middle of a lake.
"There's too much riding on me staying," said Healy, a 38-year-old who wore rubber boots reaching nearly to his knees. "There's three-quarters of a million dollars out here."