Residents in Smithland, Ky., fled their homes Tuesday while hundreds of volunteers filled and piled sandbags along the riverfront in this small Western Kentucky town, everyone on edge as they watched the water rise 6 inches a day and waited for the worst.
"We need time and some good fortune to get this thing accomplished," said Jim Tolley, a local public health director. "But it's moving along pretty good."
Further west, floodwaters threatened earthen levees protecting thousands of homes in the nation's midsection, rising so fast in some places that panicked residents didn't have time to pile sandbags.
Storms have unleashed more than a foot of rain across the region.
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Despite the punishment the region has endured, the weather was expected to get worse — and soon. Another line of storms moving through Oklahoma and Texas carried the same threat of tornadoes and flooding but over a broader area that stretched from Dallas to Louisiana and up to Memphis and heading east.
The greatest flooding threat loomed in the southeastern Missouri community of Poplar Bluff, a town of 17,000 residents about 130 miles south of St. Louis. Six inches of rain fell Monday alone, bringing the four-day total to 15 inches.
By midday, the deluge had caused the Black River to pour over a levee in 30 places. The flood wall extending from Poplar Bluff to the town of Qulin downstream was also breached in at least one place, allowing water to gush through a hole.
"Each heavy downpour, each hour that passes by with the water pushing on that levee, the likelihood of a failure is that much more possible," said Deputy Police Chief Jeff Rolland, calling it a "miracle" that the first hole did not develop until late morning.
The storm system dumped heavy rain on seven states and spawned at least one tornado Monday in Arkansas. The twister killed four people and blasted a path of destruction through the town of Vilonia, 25 miles north of Little Rock. Four others died in floods.
In Kentucky, more than 80 National Guard troops were deployed to flood-threatened areas of the state Tuesday.
Maj. Gen. Edward W. Tonini, adjutant general for Kentucky, said the troops were all sent to western regions, where flooding is expected to be the worst.
The soldiers were helping to build sandbag levees in Livingston, Ballard, Henderson and Daviess counties, according to a news release.
Smithland Ky., at the confluence of the Ohio and Cumberland rivers bustled with activity as sand was delivered and bags filled to build a 4-foot-high, 2½ -mile long barrier between the water and the land.
The sandbag levee was in addition to a small earthen floodwall built in 2005 that stretches just four-tenths of a mile to protect the tiny downtown area that vacant businesses and a hodgepodge of houses and apartments call home.
Smithland was the state's No. 1 worry spot, the town Gov. Steve Beshear identified Monday as the area where forecasters were predicting "historic flooding." More than a dozen Kentucky National Guard troops arrived in the town Tuesday, one day after Beshear declared a state of emergency for all of Kentucky in preparation for flood and continued severe storm damage.
Barges half-filled with gravel were expected to be deposited along the riverfront — in front of the sandbags — Wednesday in an effort to help protect the sandbags, said Brent Stringer, the Livingston County emergency management director.
In 1997, the Ohio River reached 51.3 feet at Smithland, Stringer said, more than 11 feet above flood stage. It is projected this time to crest at 54 feet on May 3, he said.
If the river holds at 54 feet, Stringer said, he was confident the barges and the sandbag levee would work.
If not, "there's no certainty we can hold the water back."
In Poplar Bluff, the Army Corps of Engineers postponed its decision on a proposal to blow a huge hole in the Birds Point levee in southeast Missouri, just downriver of the confluence. The idea was hatched as a desperate bid to reduce the amount of water moving down the Mississippi.
Gov. Jay Nixon opposed the plan, which would soak 130,000 acres of farmland — an area stretching 30 miles north to south and as much as 8 to 10 miles wide.
Sandbagging wasn't an option in many places because the river simply rose too quickly.
"By the time we realized what was happening, it was too dangerous to sandbag," Butler County Presiding Commissioner Ed Strenfel said.
In Arkansas, the tornado battered most of the homes in the Quail Hollow subdivision of Vilonia, leaving many without a roof. A wooden fence could be seen sticking out of the top one house.
Terina Atkins, a middle school librarian, said she and her family rode out the storm in their laundry room. Adkins said she heard a loud sucking noise and realized that air was being sucked out through the drain.
"We clogged up the sink and we could feel our ears popping," Atkins said.
In northwest Arkansas, two men apparently drowned in Bentonville after the small pickup truck they were in was swamped by a swollen creek, likely the night before, Benton County Coroner Daniel Oxford said. He didn't name the men because their relatives hadn't yet been notified.
Three other people died in the flooding elsewhere in northwest Arkansas, authorities said.
The deaths from Monday's storms bring this month's storm-related death toll in Arkansas to 17.