Helicopters, boats rescue people after levee breaks

Floodwaters that wreaked havoc along Illinois and Iowa rivers have poured into the Mississippi, creating a torrent of water that threatens to spread the misery to riverside towns on the way to St. Louis and beyond.

Early Tuesday, a levee burst in Gulfport, flooding thousands of acres of fertile farmland, swamping the downtown, and forcing the closure of highways, rail lines and a major bridge across the Mississippi. More than a dozen people were rescued, some of them by helicopter, officials said.

The National Weather Service predicted that the river would reach to levels above previous catastrophic floods. Forecasters said they expected the river to crest at Burlington, Iowa, by today; at Quincy, Ill., and the Missouri towns of Hannibal (of Mark Twain fame) and Clarksville by Thursday or Friday; and at St. Louis by Saturday.

In Washington, President Bush promised to speed federal disaster relief to flood-ravaged Midwestern communities and said he plans to visit Iowa on Thursday to meet with state and local officials.

Speaking after a meeting at the White House with federal disaster officials, Bush said the government is prepared to provide short- and long-term help to people whose homes were flooded, as well as aid to farmers and ranchers whose land has been inundated.

Bush urged Congress to use a supplemental appropriations bill to replenish a federal disaster-relief fund in preparation for other natural disasters this year.

“The first task at hand is to deal with the floodwaters, to anticipate where the flooding may next occur and to work with the state and local authorities to deal with their response,” Bush told reporters. “Now that the water is beginning to recede, the question is, how do we help with the recovery?”

But, as the water retreated in parts of Iowa, it inexorably rose along the Mississippi, swelled by floodwaters from its tributaries.

The federal government fears that the river could overflow 27 levees along the Mississippi if forecasts are accurate and a major sandbagging effort does not raise the levees sufficiently, The Associated Press reported. Workers were busy placing millions of sandbags atop levees in Illinois, Iowa and Missouri.

The Mississippi has been closed to commercial traffic for an almost 300-mile stretch for more than five days since record river levels overwhelmed locks. River- and lake-related tourism has been halted, a severe blow for towns that rely primarily on farming and tourism to survive.

Many farmers in this area have no flood insurance, believing they were outside areas that would flood. The low-lying region around Gulfport was flooded in 1965 and 1993, but the current inundation is much greater, according to local residents.

The loss of crops across the Midwest has helped push corn prices to record highs in the past seven days. It could be weeks before fields can be pumped dry.