States of Emergency


The country's midsection faces a slow-motion disaster as heavy rains and snowmelt force the Mississippi River to swell over homes and roads. In Cairo, Ill., 100 homes were lost when a Missouri levee was blown up to save the town. Residents of Louisiana are fearful of oyster mortalities. Some of the state's inmates have been moved to higher ground. The equivalent of nearly 4 million football fields of farmland are underwater in Tennessee. "It's like a moving battlefield," said an Army Corps of Engineers spokesman.


During one recent 24-hour period, more than 250 tornadoes crashed through the South, a number that dwarfs the last record, set in 1974. More than 350 people were killed. Flattened buildings, overturned cars, and trees robbed of leaves showed the wind's might. One twister had wind speeds of up to 205 miles per hour. Police officers in Tuscaloosa, Ala., searched for missing people. The storms caused billions of dollars in damage.


In the past six months, 2 million Texas acres have gone up in flames. President Obama could see the smoke from the window of Air Force One when he visited the state recently (but declined to offer federal assistance). Four hundred fires have scorched 490 square miles in New Mexico this year. Wildfires have also struck far from the dry Southwest, burning up parts of North Carolina. In all, the fires have taken out nearly double the average land burned this time of year.


A plague of cicadas has started in the South and will soon blanket suburbs and forests as far north as Illinois. This brood of crawlers was last seen 13 years ago. The red-eyed creatures emerge from the earth and head for trees. That annoying chirp buzzing above your head? It's the male mating call, summoning the female cicadas for a roll in the leaves. The cicadas are harmless, if ubiquitous—they can number up to 1.5 million over an acre.


Texas Gov. Rick Perry recently dubbed a three-day weekend the "Days of Prayer for Rain in the Lone Star State." Those hosannas weren't immediately answered by the heavens; bone-dry days continued, making for the most arid month in Texas in more than a century. In Kansas, which is in the worst shape since 1996, dry fields are harming wheat production, raising the price of bread. Adding insult to injury: six states in the Midwest experienced the wettest April in 116 years.