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New York Times

CHICAGO - The nation's midsection, which had for months been parched by severe drought, suddenly finds itself contending with the opposite: severe flooding that has forced evacuations, slowed commercial barge traffic down the Mississippi River, and left farmers with submerged fields during a crucial planting time.

The flooding, driven in part by rainfall of as much as 8 inches in some places last week, has affected a remarkably wide stretch in states along swollen rivers in the Midwest.

The deaths of at least three people have been linked to the flooding in the past week, officials said.

"It's so pervasive," said Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois, who flew in a helicopter to survey the scope of damage to his state the other day. He recalled seeing an "ocean" beneath him.

In parts of Missouri, towns along the swollen Mississippi River on Thursday continued to brace for high waters, creating sandbag levees and makeshift barriers. In Chicago's suburbs and towns in Indiana and Michigan, residents were assessing the costs of damage already left behind in scores of soggy homes, cars and businesses. And in Fargo, N.D., officials were activating an elaborate preparation system and placing hundreds of thousands of sandbags to protect the city against the looming possibility of flooding as snow melts near the Red River in the coming days.

It seemed a sudden, dizzying reversal for a region that had since last summer been contending with a drought that left water supplies in doubt, farm fields shriveled and water levels along the Mississippi River so low as to threaten, at times, to close down commercial traffic. By Thursday, because of high waters - and more than 100 barges that broke loose from their moorings near St. Louis over the weekend - portions of the river have, in effect, been closed.

Officials said some parts of the Midwest, particularly west of the Mississippi, were still contending with a serious drought.