Floods wipe out US crops

The crest of the swollen Mississippi River moved downstream yesterday as volunteers manned sandbagged levees and coped with the costs of the Midwest's worst flooding in 15 years. "At times like these you don't know whether to cry or laugh. But here in the Midwest we tend to favour the latter," said Charlotte Hoerr, who, with her husband Brent, farms land not far from the river in this small Missouri town.

The river overcame more than two dozen levees last week, submerging small towns and vast stretches of prime farmland as the nation's most vital waterway absorbed the run-off of torrential rains that put many Iowa towns under water. The Midwest flooding and storms are expected to push US and world food prices higher. Up to five million acres of newly planted crops have been lost at the heart of the world's top grain and food exporter. Prices for corn, cattle and pigs all set records this week owing to the floods, as a world economy already hit by inflation from rising energy prices absorbed the blow.

The spillage on to the Mississippi's vast flood plain covered thousands of acres of crops. But several days of dry weather this week cut water flows, as did the levee breaches. "It's starting to feel like the worst of the crisis has passed," said Blake Roderick, a Farm Bureau official in nearby Hannibal, the childhood home of the author Mark Twain. The river in Hannibal was expected to peak on Saturday at 28.2ft (8.6m), below the record of 31.8ft set in 1993.

President George Bush toured some of the devastation in Iowa on Thursday, and the White House said relief would be made available from the US$4bn (£2bn) in the government's disaster fund. Flood relief is becoming a political issue with an election looming. The Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, also toured Iowa on Thursday, while the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, stacked sandbags in Quincy, Illinois.

"I've seen firsthand the growing magnitude of this flooding disaster, and unfortunately the end is not yet in sight," the Illinois Governor, Rod Blagojevich, said on Friday, adding that he had asked for faster aid for 20 flooded Illinois counties.

Don Rust, a farmer from Ursa, Illinois, estimated that cropland 13 miles long and six miles wide was flooded in his area. "It's a disaster, all right," said his wife Lisa, surveying the scene. "Welcome to the Midwest."

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