LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – High water pouring down the White River could cause historic flooding in cities along its path in eastern Arkansas, forecasters warned Sunday.
The river, one of many out of its banks across wide areas of the Midwest, could top levels recorded in a devastating flood 25 years ago, National Weather Service meteorologist John Robinson warned.
"There will be water going into areas where people have not seen it before, and may not be expecting to see high water," Robinson wrote in an e-mail to reporters Sunday.
A tributary of the White River, the Black River, ruptured a levee in two places Saturday near Pocahontas, said Renee Preslar, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management. That stream has been bloated by water pouring downstream from hard-hit southeastern Missouri.
Preslar said the levee breaks allowed flooding in outlying areas but she did not have details on what might have been damaged.
The Army Corps of Engineers worked through the night to plug the breaks with sandbags, and that work appeared to be holding as of Sunday afternoon, Preslar said.
"Right now, it's kind of a wait-and-see game," she said.
Corps of Engineers spokesman P.J. Spaul said the levee near Pocahontas was built in the 1940s. The levee district charged with its maintenance dissolved in the 1960s, leaving it to sag and have trees to grow up in its banks over the last 40 years, Spaul said.
"There were two, 24-inch pipes that cut through the levee. At one time, they had closure gates on them, but they couldn't be closed" Saturday, Spaul said. "Everything was rusted out on them."
Arkansas emergency management officials have said early estimates for statewide damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure was at $2 million, though that figure was expected to grow. Forecasts show it likely will be the middle of this week before rivers statewide see significant drops.
Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe has declared 35 counties disaster areas.
Last week's torrential rainstorms also caused flooding in parts of Ohio and southern Illinois and in wide areas of Missouri.
At least 17 deaths have been linked to flooding, wet roads and other weather effects over the past week, and one person is missing in Arkansas. Thousands of Missouri residents have had fled to Red Cross shelters or to the homes of friends or relatives.
The Mississippi River at Cape Girardeau was 40.9 feet Sunday, 9 feet above flood stage, and was expected to crest at 41.5 feet Monday morning.
Towns south of where the Mississippi and Ohio rivers meet in Cairo, Ill., braced for flooding expected in the next couple of days.
"They're not going down yet," said John Campbell, operations chief at Missouri's State Emergency Management Agency. "They're still rising."
The Mississippi at Cairo, Ill., was expected to crest at 54 feet Tuesday morning, 14 feet above flood stage.
Moderate flooding was forecast for New Madrid, where the river was expected to crest at 42 feet Wednesday evening. The river will crest at 41 feet in Caruthersville Friday morning, the National Weather Service said.