With emergency sirens blaring as the Missouri River rose to the top of the three-story-high levee wall in St. Joseph, about 55 miles (88 km) north of Kansas City, Missouri, sheriff's deputies rushed door-to-door urging residents to flee to higher ground.
About 1,500 residents and 6,000 employees of neighboring businesses were ushered out of the southern end of town, a city official said. Most of the evacuated dwellings were trailer homes interspersed among factories, warehouses and stockyards along a stretch of the riverfront known as "the Bottoms."
Many residents appeared stunned as they scurried out of their homes with armloads of hurriedly gathered belongings to throw into their vehicles before joining a steady stream of cars, pickup trucks, SUVs and tractor-trailers.
The abrupt evacuation, coming as the river rose just over 15 feet (4.57 meters) above flood stage - slightly exceeding the previous record of 32.1 feet (9.78 meters) - appeared to take authorities and residents by surprise.
"We don't have anywhere to go. This is overwhelming," said Linda Roberts, 70, as she and her husband, John, 66, packed their SUV, their dog sitting uneasily in a pet carrier.