ST. LOUIS, Missouri (Reuters) - Levees on the cresting Mississippi River held on Sunday as the worst U.S. Midwest flooding in 15 years began to ebb, but multibillion-dollar crop losses may boost world food prices for years.
Water levels on the river receded for the second straight day as mostly clear weather gave saturated areas a chance to start draining. Forecasts for similar dry weather in coming days gave further encouragement.
The swollen river was expected to crest on Monday in St. Louis at 38.9 feet, 11 feet below the record set in 1993 and a level considered “manageable,” said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers St. Louis District spokesman Alan Dooley.
“The crest in the areas up the Mississippi River in the district has passed,” Dooley said. “The water is still up very high and it is up against levees.”
There were no fresh levee breaks reported on Sunday. At least three dozen levees, berms and other flood barriers have been overtopped along the Mississippi in the last two weeks as the runoff from torrential rains this month pushed south along the main U.S. inland waterway.
Several flood warnings remained in effect for communities in Missouri and Illinois, but officials said they expected the worst was over, with the focus now shifting to clean-up.
“We’re just mentally and physically exhausted,” said Winfield, Missouri, resident Carol Broseman, who fled her home for a shelter on Saturday after flood waters engulfed her neighborhood. “I’ve cried all I can cry.”
The National Weather Service on Sunday forecast windy but mostly dry weather in the western and central Midwest states for the next several days, which will help waters recede further. Many Iowa rivers, which saw record flooding two weeks ago, were back near or below flood stage on Sunday.
The Corps of Engineers at Rock Island, Illinois, reopened two locks on the Mississippi River but said four in the district remained closed with water still 3-5 feet (0.9-1.5 metres) above lock walls.
At one point 388 miles of the Mississippi River were closed to commercial traffic, from Clinton, Iowa, to the Jefferson Barracks Bridge, just south of St. Louis. The blockages have cost barge companies and other shippers millions of dollars.
The Midwest storms and torrential rains have killed at least 24 people since late May. More than 38,000 people have been driven from their homes, mostly in Iowa where 83 of 99 counties have been declared disaster areas.
Fears that as many as 5 million acres of corn and soybeans have been lost to flooding in the world’s largest grain and food exporter pushed corn and livestock prices to record highs in the last week.
The ripple inflation effect on global food prices as U.S. prices soar has alarmed everyone from central bankers to food aid groups. Fears that livestock herds will be culled because of soaring corn feed prices may push meat prices up for years.
Flood aid and relief issues also poured into the political arena.
Democratic Party presidential candidate Barack Obama said on Saturday that Midwest levee breaks and flood damage were reasons to back his $60 billion spending proposal to modernize U.S. roads, bridges and waterways. Much of that would be financed by downsizing U.S. commitments in Iraq, he said.
Iowa Gov. Chet Culver has estimated 45,000 square miles
of his state had been hit by tornadoes or flooding, including 340 towns, with extensive damage to road and rail lines at a cost of “tens of billions of dollars.”
Chemicals from farm fields and other toxic substances left behind as waters recede have created a potential health threat. Damaged municipal sewage systems in places like Cedar Rapids, Iowa, were releasing raw sewage into rivers. But drinking water supplies remain unpolluted in most areas, officials said.
In Cedar Rapids, where officials have said 4,000 homes were damaged by this month’s flooding, government buyout plans estimated at $80 million or more were under discussion.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has 43 disaster recovery centers open across the flooded areas of Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
In Iowa, Indiana and Wisconsin, 56,096 registrations for assistance have been received from disaster victims and more than $115 million approved for housing assistance and other disaster-related needs. More than 5,600 households have filed flood insurance claims.
Writing by Peter Bohan; editing by Vicki Allen