DES MOINES — Officials on Friday urged tens of thousands of workers and residents to evacuate as rivers across the Hawkeye state continued to flood towns big and small.
Though the National Weather Service expected water levels here in the capital to peak Friday night or early this morning, emergency management officials said they were focused on making sure people were safe and dry in case the situation changed.
"The risk very clearly is that the levee system is extraordinarily taxed right now and anyone in the . . . flood plain is going to be at risk," Public Works Director Bill Stowe told reporters Friday.
Iowa Gov. Chet Culver on Friday declared 83 of Iowa's 99 counties disaster areas as rivers either reached or were expected to hit historic levels -- flowing over soil already saturated from an extremely wet spring. Dozens of roads were closed, along with sections of two major interstates, forcing weary residents to battle congested, hours-long detours to escape the rising waters.
And there may not be much relief, weather service spokesman Pat Slattery said. Meteorologists predicted that rain, hail, high winds and possibly tornadoes could return to Iowa in the next few days. On Wednesday, a tornado touched down at a Boy Scout camp in Little Sioux, Iowa, killing four teenagers and injuring 48 other people.
"This has been a very trying week for our state," Culver said in a statement.
Miles of fields with fledgling corn plants have been inundated, their green sprouts swallowed up by water the color of coffee. The rising floodwaters lapped at the bottoms of highway billboards. They washed away bridges -- even one that had been weighted down by railroad cars filled with rocks in an effort to keep it from collapsing.
Much of the worst flooding has occurred on the eastern side of the state.
Palo, about 128 miles northeast of Des Moines, was submerged Friday. Residents of the village of nearly 900 -- whose town motto is "Friends & Neighbors Helping Friends & Neighbors" -- stuffed clothing and photo albums into suitcases and trash bags. Then they placed white bedsheets or T-shirts on their front doors, a sign to rescue crews that they had left town safely.
Many of them headed to Cedar Rapids, the state's second-largest city, where hundreds of city blocks were underwater, according to Linn County Administrative Service Director Mike Goldberg.
At least 24,000 residents there had been evacuated as well.
With water seeping into the lower floors of Mercy Medical Center, staff at the downtown Cedar Rapids facility moved patients by wheelchair and hustled them out on stretchers to other medical centers.
City officials were pleading with the public to use as little tap water as possible. Only one of the town's six wells was operational.
Rescuers crowded into motorboats to slowly navigate city streets, searching for people who had not left, as well as for trapped pets.
Those who had evacuated fretted about what they might find when the floodwaters receded.
All Cedar Rapids resident Greg R. Terrance had taken was six pairs of underwear, two pairs of jeans and four pairs of socks. Watching footage of his neighborhood on a friend's laptop at a Des Moines cafe, the 26-year-old college student bemoaned: "I'm such an idiot for not taking my books and computer with me when I left. I just never thought it was going to get this bad."
In Waterloo, Iowa, spray-paint artist Paco Rosic and his family camped out at their downtown family restaurant, built inside an 1870s brick building. Two years ago, he had adorned its ceiling with his interpretation of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel fresco.
"There was no way I was leaving my creation, no way my parents would leave," said Rosic, 28.
"We got sandbags and stayed. Everyone else downtown left.
"We were all alone."
For the last several days, the family ate from the restaurant's inventory and battled to keep the water from seeping inside the Galleria de Paco. When the power went out, they turned on the generators. At night, they slept upstairs in Paco's studio, squeezing in between stacks of aerosol cans.
By Friday morning, the water on their street had receded.
Neighbors returned to flooded basements and sodden possessions.
"We've had no damage," said Jacky Rosic, 52, Paco's father. "It's a miracle."
Huffstutter reported from Iowa and Correll from Colorado.