(Reuters) - Rain-swollen rivers threatened more flooding on Thursday in Arkansas, Louisiana, Illinois and Oklahoma, as Tulsa’s mayor warned that the decades-old levee system in his city would be at risk even as waters receded through the weekend.
Since early last week, a spate of deadly tornadoes has caused widespread damage across the central United States while torrential downpours unleashed record floods, turning highways into lakes and submerging all but the roofs of some homes.
The violent weather has been blamed for least 16 deaths across several states in the nation’s midsection.
In Tulsa, Oklahoma’s second-largest city, the state’s National Guard conducted round-the-clock patrols of the 20-mile (32-km) levee system that protects some 10,000 people.
“To have a 70-year-old levee system that has been poorly maintained and protects thousands of people and their homes and property and to have it go through a historic level of stress at that age and in the condition it’s in, it’s been an area of high risk,” Mayor G.T. Bynum said in a phone interview.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was gradually reducing the level of water behind the berms, aiming to return it to a safe level by Sunday night, Bynum said.
“You have all this material that has high pressure on it and is saturated with water, as that pressure is relieved, you see material start to fall away. That can endanger the integrity of the levee,” Bynum said. “That risk won’t be relieved until late this weekend.”
There were no reports of major levee breaks on Thursday, the National Weather Service said. Waterways posing the greatest threats included the Mississippi, Arkansas and Missouri rivers.
Oklahoma has borne much of the brunt so far, with six fatalities attributed to flooding and severe weather confirmed by the state’s chief medical examiner, and hospitals reporting more than 100 injuries.
Missouri’s Highway Patrol has confirmed seven weather-related deaths since May 21 - three victims of tornadoes and four from rain and flooding.
Floodwaters also swept a motorist to his death on Tuesday in Arkansas, while twisters that pulverized buildings in western Ohio on Monday killed one person and injured scores of others, authorities said. A tornado last week in Adair, Iowa, claimed one life there.
On the brighter side, the region appears to be headed for a few days without rain heading into the weekend, said Bob Oravec, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.
Flooding in Arkansas has already closed 12 state highways, and 400 households have agreed to voluntary evacuations, said Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson.
Rivers were expected to crest by early June to the highest levels on record as far south as Little Rock, Arkansas, forecasters said.
Little Rock mayor Frank Scott Jr. said municipal workers have distributed thousands of sandbags to residents around the city, parts of which were hit with flash flooding on Wednesday night.
“We are in unprecedented times here in Arkansas, and the Arkansas River will reach historic level,” Scott said at a news conference on Thursday. “We just received information that it’s now going to be 29 feet with the crest next week.”
In Louisiana, the Mississippi River was also at record flood levels due to record-breaking rains this spring, forecasters said.
More than 300 tornadoes have touched down in the Midwest in the past two weeks.
Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles, Rich McKay in Atlanta, and Jonathan Allen and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Scott Malone, Jonathan Oatis and James Dalgleish