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Missouri residents flee amid storm as river threatens town's levee

Thunder roared and tornado warning sirens blared, and all emergency workers in the southeast Missouri town of Poplar Bluff could do Monday was hope the saturated levee holding back the Black River would survive yet another downpour.

Murky water flowed over the levee at more than three dozen spots and crept toward homes in the flood plain. Some of the areas had already been flooded. If the levee broke -- and forecasters said that it was in imminent danger of doing so -- about 7,000 residents in and around Poplar Bluff would be displaced.

About 1,000 homes were evacuated earlier in the day. Sandbagging wasn't an option, Police Chief Danny Whitely said, because there were too many trouble spots, and it was too dangerous to put people on the levee. Police went door-to-door encouraging people to get out. Some of the residents scurried to collect belongings; others chose to stay. Two men had to be rescued by boat.

"Basically, all we can do now is wait, just wait," Whitely said.

It could be a long week of waiting for the rain to stop in Poplar Bluff and other river towns in the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys. Storms have ripped through parts of America's midsection for weeks, and they were followed Monday by heavy rain from northeast Texas to Kentucky.

In communities already hit by severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, residents watched rivers and lakes rise with a growing sense of dread. Some of them rented moving trucks to haul their possessions to safety, while others evacuated quickly, carrying their belongings in plastic bags.

The storm system that blew through northeast Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas on Monday was expected to move into Illinois and Wisconsin today, said Greg Carbin, a meteorologist with the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. At the same time, a second storm system is likely to start along the same path, meaning several more days of rain. That system is expected to continue east through Thursday, he said.

"I think we'll see substantial flooding," Carbin said, adding, "Arkansas to Illinois, that corridor, they've already have incredible rainfall and this is going to aggravate the situation."

The region will get at least 6 inches of rain over the next three days, he said. An area east of Little Rock, Ark., stretching across Memphis and up to eastern Tennessee will be hardest-hit, with 8 to 9 inches.

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