As thunder roared and tornado warning sirens blared, emergency workers in the southeast Missouri town of Poplar Bluff could do little Monday evening but hope against hope that the saturated levee holding back the Black River would survive yet another torrential downpour.
Murky water flowed over the levee at more than three dozen spots and crept toward homes in the flood plain. Some had already flooded.
Police, saying they believed a "catastrophic failure" of the levee along Butler County Road 607 was imminent, moved about 1,000 residents from the town's southeast side by late Monday morning and closed the area to traffic.
Poplar Bluff has about 17,000 residents and is roughly 150 southwest of St. Louis.
Sandbagging wasn't an option, Police Chief Danny Whitely said. 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 scurried to collect belongings, but many chose to stay.
The Missouri National Guard dispatched dozens of soldiers and rescue equipment to the area. Emergency crews rescued a man Monday morning after his pickup truck was swept into a water-filled ditch about 10 miles southeast of Poplar Bluff, while state troopers used boats to rescue other people trapped in their homes.
Whiteley said he felt helpless.
"Basically all we can do now is wait, just wait," he said.
Some of the evacuees sought shelter at the town's Black River Coliseum, a 5,000-seat concert and meeting venue that overlooks the swollen Black River and a park that's already under water. Other residents were staying with friends and relatives. There were no reports of injuries.
A steady stream of vehicles arrived at the Coliseum before midday, dropping off residents carrying belongings in plastic sacks.
Rev. Gregory Kirk, pastor of the United Gospel Rescue Mission in Poplar Bluff, said he got the call early Monday to prepare to feed evacuees sent to the Coliseum. He'd been up since 4 a.m. preparing food, even though one of his main suppliers was already flooded.
"We feed everybody," he said. "I'm stressed out. I've been up all night."
More rain is expected across the region over the next several days, and some spots that had recorded 7 or 8 inches of rain before midday Monday were expected to get more through Tuesday night. That rain will fall on ground that's already saturated from earlier downpours.
"A lot of it is going to be in those same areas that have already been hit so hard already," said Mike O'Connell of the State Emergency Management Agency. "The idea is that there is the potential for more severe weather and more flooding and the worst of the rain is going to affect the same areas that have been hit hard already."
Smaller evacuations were happening elsewhere in the state. Branson spokesman Jerry Adams said 15 people along the edge of Lake Taneycomo were moved, and the popular tourist town's camper park also was evacuated.
The Springfield News-Leader reported that rising water covered the boardwalk by the lake at Branson Landing early Monday.
Meanwhile, Table Rock Dam in southwest Missouri prepared to open its floodgates, after the lake rose almost 5 feet in 24 hours, lake manager Greg Oller told the News-Leader. The lake has received 10 inches of rain since Thursday, and more was on the way.
Southern Missouri has been hit hard by heavy rain over the past several days, and more rain was falling Monday. The National Weather Service predicts rain through Wednesday in the region.
Branson has had nearly 7 inches of rain over the past three days, prompting scattered evacuations. West Plains has received more than 8 inches of rain.
Dozens of roads were closed by flooding and flash flooding across the state. Several school districts in south-central and southwest Missouri canceled classes Monday because of the road closures. Near the town of Hardenville, a 54-year-old man died Saturday night after attempting to drive across a low-water crossing.
Flood and flash flood warnings have been issued throughout southern and eastern Missouri. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is keeping a close eye on several levees, especially south of St. Louis.
Major flooding is predicted at several spots along the Mississippi River below the confluence with the Missouri River. The flood level at Cape Girardeau is expected to get to 12 feet above flood stage later this week, but the downtown area is protected by a flood wall and only a few businesses and homes were expected to be affected.
Army Corps of Engineers spokesman George Stringham said he was not aware of any Mississippi or Missouri river levees in the state that were in imminent danger of being overtopped or broken. Water at a handful of smaller levees along the Mississippi between Clarksville and Winfield was near their tops, but the river was at or near crest in those areas and expected to begin falling.
National Weather Service meteorologist Mark Fuchs said a few homes also were evacuated in the northeast Missouri town of LaGrange. But the river had crested north of St. Louis.