LOS, ANGELES/DENVER/CHICAGO – Overflowing rivers receded in Missouri and Illinois on Friday after flooding swamped communities and forced towns to evacuate, but forecasters warned rain-swollen waterways could menace Southern states downstream.
Rare winter floods have killed at least 28 people in the U.S. Midwest since last weekend, most of them when they drove into flooded areas after days of downpours. Midwest floods typically occur in the spring as snowmelt swells rivers.
Dozens have died in U.S. storms, which also brought unusual winter tornadoes and were part of a wild worldwide weather system over the Christmas holiday period that also saw severe flooding in Britain.
More than 100,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes in areas bordering Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina after floods due to heavy summer rains caused by El Niño, authorities have said.
Weather is dominating conversation on social media over the holiday season after the international climate deal in Paris.
Particularly hard hit in the United States in recent days has been Missouri, which has suffered historic flooding.
Close to St. Louis on Friday, the Mississippi River, the second-longest river in the United States, was falling after reaching near-record heights, the National Weather Service (NWS) said.
The Meramec River, which meanders near St. Louis and empties into the Mississippi River, broke height records on Thursday, sending a deluge of water over its banks and forcing the closure of two major highways.
Both interstates 55 and 44 reopened on Friday, but many other roads remained closed in the St. Louis area, state officials said, causing extreme traffic congestion.
Thousands of people evacuated from their homes earlier in the week were waiting to return to their communities and begin the process of cleaning up. Hundreds of structures have been damaged or destroyed, local officials said.
The Mississippi River is expected to crest at Thebes, in southern Illinois, at 47.5 feet (14 meters) on Sunday, more than 1½ feet above the 1995 record, the NWS forecast.
Towns farther down the Mississippi hoped their levees would take the strain. Southern states including Louisiana and Mississippi are expected to be affected in the coming days, the NWS said.
Workers in Tennessee were preparing for the Mississippi River in Memphis to reach flood stage over the weekend.
“We’re moving things up high and we’ve got our generators out and got some extra water,” said Dotty Kirkendoll, a clerk at Riverside Park Marina on McKellar Lake, which feeds off the Mississippi River.
Flood warnings were also in effect on Friday for parts of Texas, South Carolina, Alabama and Kentucky, the NWS said, while major flooding was occurring on the Arkansas River and its tributaries in that state.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency to prepare for flooding.
“All that water’s coming south and we have to be ready for it,” Lt. Gov.-elect Billy Nungesser told CNN. “It’s a serious concern. It’s early in the season. We usually don’t see this until much later.”
The Illinois National Guard was also ordered into action Friday and hundreds of people urged to flee rising floodwaters, as the death toll from days of heavy rain in the U.S. Midwest mounted.
Swaths of the United States have been buffeted in the last week by tornadoes, storms and torrential rain, while the East Coast has seen unseasonably warm weather over the holiday season.
Missouri and Illinois have been particularly hard hit from the record-breaking and relentless deluge in the past week.
The death toll from the flooding in the Midwest rose to 22 after a man’s body was recovered in Missouri, ABC News said. Fifteen of the dead were in Missouri and seven in Illinois.
There were growing fears for southern Illinois, where the rising Mississippi River reportedly topped a levee, putting several towns and rural communities at risk.
Hundreds of people were urged to evacuate.
Bruce Rauner, governor of Illinois, tweeted: “I have ordered Illinois National Guard soldiers into active duty to aid local efforts to save lives and mitigate flood damage in Southern IL.”
Forecasters warned that Southern states were in increasing danger in the days to come.
“Major flooding is occurring or forecast on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and tributaries in Missouri, Illinois, and Kentucky, with record flooding at several locations,” the National Weather Service said.
“Major flooding is also occurring on the Arkansas River and tributaries in Arkansas. Floodwaters will move downstream over the next couple of weeks, with significant river flooding expected for the lower Mississippi into mid-January.”
There was some relief, however, in the St. Louis area of Missouri, where flooding was at last receding.