CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Hospital patients in wheelchairs and on stretchers were evacuated in the middle of the night as the biggest flood Cedar Rapids has ever seen swamped more than 400 blocks yesterday and all but cut off the supply of clean drinking water in the city of 120,000.
As many as 10,000 townspeople driven from their homes by the rain-swollen Cedar River took shelter at schools and hotels or moved in with relatives.
About 100 miles to the west, the Des Moines River threatened to spill over the levees into downtown Des Moines, prompting officials in Iowa's largest city to urge people in low-lying areas to clear out by last evening. The river was expected to crest a couple of hours later.
"We are perilously close to topping the levees," said Bill Stowe, public works director in the Iowa capital, population 190,000. "It's time to step out of harm's way."
The flooding was cited as the cause of at least two deaths in Iowa: A driver was killed in an accident on a road under water, and a farmer who went out to check his property was swept away.
Since June 6, Iowa has gotten at least 8 inches of rain. That came after a wet spring that left the ground saturated. As of yesterday, nine rivers were at or above historic flood levels. More thunderstorms are possible in the Cedar Rapids area over the weekend, but next week is expected to be sunny and dry.
In Cedar Rapids, the engorged river flowed freely through downtown. At least 438 city blocks were under water, and in some neighborhoods the water was 8 feet high. Hundreds of cars were submerged, with only their antennas poking up through the water. Plastic toys bobbed in front of homes.
Flooding left 2 inches of water in the emergency room at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids on Thursday night, and water spilling into the lower levels threatened to knock out the hospital's emergency generator.
A total of 176 patients were moved to other hospitals.