By Carey Gillam
ST. LOUIS, Missouri (Reuters) - Levees on the crestingMississippi River held on Sunday as the worst U.S. Midwestflooding in 15 years began to ebb, but multibillion-dollarcosts from major crop losses and other damage may last years asmay effects on world food prices.
Waters levels on the river receded for the second straightday as mostly clear weather gave saturated areas a chance tostart draining. Forecasts for similar dry weather in comingdays gave further encouragement.
The swollen river was expected to crest on Monday in St.Louis at 38.9 feet (11.9 metres), 11 feet (3.3 metres) belowthe record set in 1993 and a level considered "manageable,"said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers St. Louis District spokesmanAlan Dooley.
"The crest in the areas up the Mississippi River in thedistrict has passed," Dooley said. "The water is still up veryhigh and it is up against levees."
There were no fresh levee breaks reported on Sunday. Atleast three dozen levees, berms and other flood barriers havebeen overtopped along the Mississippi in the last two weeks asthe runoff from torrential rains this month pushed south alongthe main U.S. inland waterway.
Several flood warnings remained in effect for communitiesin Missouri and Illinois, but officials said they expected theworst was over, with the focus now shifting to clean-up.
"We're just mentally and physically exhausted," saidWinfield, Missouri, resident Carol Broseman, who fled her homefor a shelter on Saturday after flood waters engulfed herneighbourhood. "I've cried all I can cry."
The National Weather Service on Sunday forecast windy butmostly dry weather in the western and central Midwest statesfor the next several days, which will help waters recedefurther. Many Iowa rivers, which saw record flooding two weeksago, were back near or below flood stage on Sunday.
The Corps of Engineers at Rock Island, Illinois, reopenedtwo locks on the Mississippi River but said four in thedistrict remained closed with water still 3-5 feet (0.9-1.5metres) above lock walls.
At one point 388 miles (624 km) of the Mississippi Riverwere closed to commercial traffic, from Clinton, Iowa, to theJefferson Barracks Bridge, just south of St. Louis. Theblockages have cost barge companies and other shippers millionsof dollars.
COSTS, RELIEF REQUESTS RISING
The Midwest storms and torrential rains have killed atleast 24 people since late May. More than 38,000 people havebeen driven from their homes, mostly in Iowa where 83 of 99counties have been declared disaster areas.
Fears that as many as 5 million acres (2 million hectares)of corn and soybeans have been lost to flooding in the world'slargest grain and food exporter pushed corn and livestockprices to record highs in the last week.
The ripple inflation effect on global food prices as U.S.prices soar has alarmed everyone from central bankers to foodaid groups. Fears that livestock herds will be culled becauseof soaring corn feed prices may push meat prices up for years.
Flood aid and relief issues also poured into the politicalarena.
Democratic Party presidential candidate Barack Obama saidon Saturday that Midwest levee breaks and flood damage werereasons to back his $60 billion (30.1 billion pounds) spendingproposal to modernize U.S. roads, bridges and waterways. Muchof that would be financed by downsizing U.S. commitments inIraq, he said.
Iowa Gov. Chet Culver has estimated 45,000 square miles(116,500 sq km) of his state had been hit by tornadoes orflooding, including 340 towns, with extensive damage to roadand rail lines at a cost of "tens of billions of dollars."
Chemicals from farm fields and other toxic substances leftbehind as waters recede have created a potential health threat.Damaged municipal sewage systems in places like Cedar Rapids,Iowa, were releasing raw sewage into rivers. But drinking watersupplies remain unpolluted in most areas, officials said.
In Cedar Rapids, where officials have said 4,000 homes weredamaged by this month's flooding, government buyout plansestimated at $80 million or more were under discussion.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has 43 disasterrecovery centres open across the flooded areas of Iowa,Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
In Iowa, Indiana and Wisconsin, 56,096 registrations forassistance have been received from disaster victims and morethan $115 million approved for housing assistance and otherdisaster-related needs. More than 5,600 households have filedflood insurance claims.
(Writing by Peter Bohan; editing by Vicki Allen)