Floods in Missouri forced hundreds of residents out of their homes after four days of storms sent rivers to record levels, killing at least 13 people, closing hundreds of roads and halting shipping on the swollen Mississippi river.
Missouri hit by record floods
A rare winter flood has claimed more than a dozen lives and threatens hundreds of homes in Missouri. Vision: Reuters.
A week of chaotic weather continued throughout the United States as a storm system that spawned deadly tornadoes in the Midwest and Southwest pushed north. More than 40 people across the country have died of weather-related causes during the Christmas holidays in the past week.
Missouri has been pounded by downpours since Saturday, and forecasters warned that its major rivers could crest between Wednesday and Saturday at record levels.
"Flooding on the middle portion of the Mississippi River and its tributaries may reach levels not seen during the winter months since records began during the middle 1800s," Alex Sosnowski, senior meteorologist, wrote on AccuWeather.com.
"It's very clear that Missouri is in the midst of a very historic and dangerous flooding event," Governor Jay Nixon said at a news conference on Tuesday.
Several major rivers and tributaries in Missouri and Illinois were poised to crest at record levels, the National Weather Service said. Some of the rivers would continue to rise until Saturday.
At the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, about 32 kilometres north of St. Louis, residents of the towns of West Alton and Arnold were told to evacuate.
"Access to and from town will be lost in a matter of hours," the local Rivers Pointe Fire District said in an alert. Video from local news helicopters showed homes in West Alton with water almost at roof levels.
Arnold residents scrambled to find hotels or move to shelters.
Sarah Quinn, 18, said she and her great-grandparents were moving to a hotel room after police turned off the power at her subdivision. Her sister, grandmother and other relatives decided to brave it out without power because they wanted to stay in their homes and vehicles to look after their pets.
"I've never had this happen before. We've had simple flooding in the back of our subdivision and we've had to sandbag before, but it wasn't this severe," said Ms Quinn, who spoke to Reuters by telephone, from her job in a local restaurant.
The Bourbeuse River crested on Tuesday at an all-time record in Union, Missouri, after flooding about 25 homes, nine businesses and the city's sewer system, Mayor Mike Livengood said.
"It will take major work to get those businesses up and running again," Mr Livengood told Reuters. He said no one was injured in the town of about 10,500 people in Franklin County, just south-west of St. Louis.
The US Coast Guard closed an 8-kilometre stretch of the Mississippi River near St. Louis to all vessel traffic due to hazardous conditions.
The floodwaters have forced the closured of roadways and highways, including a portion of Interstate 44, a major highway that runs from west Texas to St. Louis, the Missouri Department of Transportation said on Wednesday.
Sewage has been flowing into the fast-rising Meramec River near St. Louis since Monday, when floodwater disabled a treatment plant, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
In Illinois, some inmates were moved out of the Menard Correctional Centre, a maximum security prison on the banks of the Mississippi River, and sandbags and drinking water were prepared in anticipation of flooding in lower level cell blocks, Illinois officials said in a statement.
Governor Bruce Rauner on Tuesday issued a state disaster proclamation for seven counties to help with response and recovery.
Mr Nixon called out the National Guard to direct traffic away from closed roads in his state and urged people not to drive in flooded areas.
Three new flood-related deaths were discovered on Tuesday, the governor said, raising the death toll in the state since the storms began over the weekend to 13.
"These citizen soldiers will provide much-needed support to state and local first responders, many of whom have spent the last several days working around the clock responding to record rainfall and flooding," Mr Nixon said in a statement.
The severe weather has stranded tens of thousands of travellers during one of the busiest travel periods of the year.
As of Wednesday, more than 1440 flights had been cancelled in the United States and about 8500 were delayed, according to FlightAware.com.