'I've never seen anything on this scale before,' Mr Clinton said after a helicopter trip to survey the chaos. The administration is today presenting a first bill to Congress asking for dollars 2.5bn in emergency aid.
The flooding has reached almost Biblical proportions. Towns and swathes of farmland are now huge brown lakes. The cost of lost crops and ruined property stands between dollars 3bn and dollars 5bn. The floods have killed 23 people and forced the evacuation of 36,000. National Guardsmen and volunteers desperate to save their homes and possessions have installed 16 million sandbags to try and contain the region's bloated, raging rivers. But in 181 places the levees, or dykes, have been breached.
Nor is there sign of a respite. Every day brings new deluges across a stricken area covering eight states, from Minnesota and Wisconsin in the north to Nebraska and south-west Kansas. In Dodge City five inches of rain fell on Tuesday night, creating flash floods which trapped dozens of people in their cars. Forecasters predict more of the same for at least a week.
But the worst of the crisis is along the Mississippi and its tributaries, in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri. In normal times affluent Des Moines is one of the Midwest's showcase cities. Today it is virtually a ghost town, with all efforts directed to preventing further damage to the town's main water works. Flood contamination has deprived 250,000 people of drinking water, while hospitals are dispensing tetanus and typhoid shots to counter the threat of epidemic.
St Louis however, just south of where the Mississippi and Missouri merge, still seems safe, although some outlying suburbs have been inundated. The Mississippi is expected to crest in the city on Sunday at 45ft, 15ft above flood level. But the centre is protected by a 52ft levee. The situation of Jefferson City, Missouri's capital, is more precarious. The Missouri river there is set to reach 32.6 feet tomorrow, 3ft above the levee height.
Well aware of the criticism that assailed President Bush for his tardy response to Hurricane Andrew last year, the Clinton administration is making sure that this time the cavalry does arrive. No fewer than 222 counties have been declared federal disaster areas, making them eligible for special grants.
Congressional leaders have promised speedy assent for the aid bill when they meet the President in Washington today. 'This is the emergency of the year,' said Senator Ted Stevens.
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