IOWA CITY, Iowa (AFP) — Officials warily eyed the mighty Mississippi River Monday swollen by days of flooding as waterlogged Iowan towns began a massive clean-up with damage set to run into billions of dollars.
With some 2,500 National Guard already deployed across the state trying to keep the floodwaters at bay, experts believe the Mississippi, the second longest river in the United States, could crest either Tuesday or Wednesday.
Iowa Governor Chet Culver warned the Mississippi would be the next battleground, as waters from already-overflowing tributaries poured into it.
"It's likely we'll see major flooding in every city on the border, from New Boston on down. We're very concerned about that," he said late Sunday.
The massive river, which passes through 10 states in its 3,734-kilometer (2,320-mile) journey from its source in Minnesota to its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico, defines the border between Iowa and Illinois.
Parts of Illinois are already under water, and officials there are bracing for the same kind of misery heaped on homes and businesses in Iowa, where 36,000 people have been evacuated, most from the town of Cedar Rapids.
"While this is a trying time for our state, every Iowan should know this: together, we will rebuild," Culver said before touring the devastated areas on Monday.
More than 11 million people in nine midwestern states have been affected by the flooding and extreme weather of recent weeks, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said.
Iowa was by the far the hardest hit: 83 of its 99 counties have been declared disaster areas and more than 4.8 million sandbags were laid down to try to stem the tide.
Iowa City was still battling widespread floods, and Mayor Regenia Bailey told the Des Moines Register that the Iowa River is so high that it will not drop down to the previous record flood level, reached in 1993, for another 10 days.
A curfew was in effect across the city, which so far has lost some 500 homes to the floods, city officials told the newspaper.
Seventeen people have died as a result of the floods in Iowa since the start of the extreme weather on May 25, adding to another five deaths in neighboring states.
"It's some of the worst flooding I've seen since (Hurricane) Katrina" which hit New Orleans in August 2005, FEMA director David Paulison told CNN after touring the damage in Iowa.
Losses will likely be greater than they were in heavy floods which hit in 1993, experts told the Des Moines Register, when the damage and lost business from widespread flooding totaled about 2.1 billion dollars.
Some 750 million dollars worth of property, mostly homes, has already been swallowed by the waters in Cedar Rapids.
"We're talking two billion dollars to three billion to get this place back on its feet," Lee Clancey, president of Cedar Rivers chamber of commerce, told the newspaper after 400 blocks were submerged in the town.
Iowa Homeland Security Emergency Management spokesman Nick Klemesrud told AFP it would take time to assess the damage, but predicted the losses will be staggering.
"It's public infrastructure, it's personal homes, it's land, it's fields, it's livestock, it's public buildings," he said.
The agriculture sector was said to be particularly badly hit with initial estimates to crop damage of a billion dollars, according to the governor's office.
And amid reports that 20 percent of Iowa's crops have been lost, the damage could put further pressure on high global food prices.
"Given the flooding we see today, we're likely to see prices go significantly higher based on the weather," said Chad Hart, an agriculture economist at Iowa State University.
Barge traffic ground to a halt on the swollen Mississippi and rail shipments were also hit as floodwaters washed out track and key bridges.
The waters were said to be receding in several of the hardest hit towns including Cedar Rapids -- where 24,000 of the city's 124,000 residents were evacuated -- and Columbus Junction.
Television crews allowed into downtown Cedar Rapids showed images of massive debris littering the streets, smashed store windows, warped furniture and sidewalks streaked with mud and sand.
Cars and houseboats floated downriver where they were trapped by a rail bridge, trees were torn from their roots, roads were washed out and bridges collapsed.
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