POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. – A thousand residents fled their homes in southern Missouri on Monday as heavy rains falling on saturated ground threatened to break the levee protecting their town. Smaller evacuations also took place from Kentucky to Arkansas as rivers and lakes continued to rise, and it was only expected to get worse.
Forecasters called for severe storms that will drop more heavy rain across the lower Ohio and Mississippi River valleys, compounding the misery from a storm system that pounded the region last week and over the weekend, spawning tornadoes and washing away roads. Some places have seen 10 to 15 inches already, and the worst flooding may not come until Wednesday.
Two storms with heavy rain and possible tornadoes are moving into the region, with northeast Texas, eastern Oklahoma and Arkansas expected to feel the brunt, said Greg Carbin, a meteorologist with the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. Areas in Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee are expected to get several more inches of rain, and Carbin predicted "substantial" flooding as water lands on ground too wet to absorb it or in rivers and lakes already over flood stage.
He said it's unusual to see two distinct storm systems hit the same spots back to back, but that's what will happen.
"I think we'll see substantial flooding. It will affect those areas already experiencing heavy rain," he said.
On Monday, police in Poplar Bluff, a town of 17,000 people about 150 miles southwest of St. Louis, moved residents out before noon Monday, after officials said they feared a "catastrophic failure" of the town's levee on the Black River was imminent. Some evacuees sought shelter at the town's Black River Coliseum, a 5,000-seat concert and meeting venue that overlooks the swollen river and a park that's already under water. Others moved in with friends and relatives. There were no reports of injuries.
A steady stream of people carrying their belongings in plastic sacks flowed into the coliseum, where members of the United Gospel Rescue Mission had food prepared. Rev. Gregory Kirk said he got the call to feed people early Monday and he'd been up and working since 4 a.m.
One of his main suppliers had already been flooded, he said.
"We feed everybody," Kirk said. "I'm stressed out. I've been up all night."
The floods added to a miserable weekend for much of southern and eastern Missouri. A tornado tore through the St. Louis suburbs and Lambert-St. Louis International Airport on Friday, damaging dozens of homes and gashing the roof of the airport's main terminal. More storms spawned flash flooding in southwest Missouri on Saturday.
Branson spokesman Jerry Adams said 15 people along the edge of Lake Taneycomo were moved, and the popular tourist town's camper park was evacuated.
Meanwhile, Table Rock Dam, about a half-hour west of downtown Branson, prepared to open its floodgates, after the lake rose almost 5 feet in 24 hours, lake manager Greg Oller told the Springfield News-Leader.
Branson has had nearly 7 inches of rain over the past three days, and like many other already-soaked cities, it was expected to get more. Communities along the Ohio River in southern Indiana and Illinois River in Oklahoma began sandbagging Monday, and severe storms rumbling across Arkansas created a risk of tornadoes and more flooding along the Spring and Black rivers. City Hall and private homes in Hardy, Ark., were evacuated Monday before rising water from the Spring River.
"We just got back in after the last flood," Mayor Nina Thornton lamented.
Indiana resident John Deplata, 43, rented a moving truck Monday and began packing his belongings from his home in Utica Township along the Ohio River, just across from Louisville, Ky. His house was filled with about 4 feet of water during the 1997 floods that hit that part of the state.
"If the rain comes in like they're talking ... then it'll get us," Deplata said.
Dozens of roads and several schools were closed by flooding and flash flooding across Kentucky and Missouri.
Mehta reported from Louisville, Ky. Kristi Eaton in Oklahoma City and Hasan Dudar in Indianapolis contributed to this report.