Anxious communities along the banks of the River Shannon were tonight bracing themselves for devastating floods after waters reached record heights.
ESB warned water in already flooded areas would rise by about three inches after it was forced to increase the amount released from Parteen Weir – upstream from Limerick city.
A spokesman for Limerick and Clare councils said it would be later in the evening before the full impact will be known.
“Everywhere remains on flood alert,” he added.
Waterways Ireland revealed large parts of the Shannon and canals from Leitrim to Lough Derg were at record heights.
Gauges showed river level in Athlone at 39.2m, a half metre over the previous record, and leaving only 10cm between water either side of the lock.
Lough Ree was almost 40cm above the record height at 39.5m.
Gauges on Lough Allen were also reported at 4.28m, 30cm above the record from 2000 which saw the biggest flood in 40 years.
“We are now exceeding all known records,” a spokeswoman for the agency said.
Barry Kehoe, director of services with Athlone Town Council, revealed families have already being evacuated from their homes and moved to emergency accommodation.
He revealed officials were assessing the impact of more flooding in the rural areas to the north and south of the town to ensure the needs of isolated people were met.
“This may include assistance with evacuation, supplies or transport,” he added.
ESB said it had to release the extra water – at 10% above normal rates – when levels in Lough Derg rose to an all-time high due to heavy rainfall. The situation will be assessed in the morning.
“It is expected to cause increased flood levels downstream of Parteen Weir by an estimated three inches as it is discharging into an already flooded area,” said a spokesman.
In Clare a flood warning remained in O’Briensbridge, Clonlara, Westbury and Shannon Banks, while officials in Limerick warned residents in Castleconnell and Montpelier to be on alert.
Households in flood prone areas were urged to have a plan ready in case conditions deteriorate, to check on any elderly or infirm neighbour and be vigilant with children around water.
“The actions that can be undertaken immediately prior to a flood can reduce damages and protect you and your family,” the spokesman added.
Meanwhile the Defence Forces revealed personnel were in Athlone, Shannon, Limerick, and Ennis to distribute thousands of sandbags and be on standby to evacuate residents.
Soldiers in Cork city were also delivering drinking and sanitary water, taking food to the elderly, infirm and housebound, and working at the Mercy and Shanakiel Hospitals and Lee Fields pumping stations.
Michael Silke, of the Irish Farmers’ Association, said the situation was beyond belief.
“Despite the best efforts of local volunteers and the council, communities are enduring the hardship associated with the damage caused by severe flooding,” said Mr Silke.
“The €2m flood support fund will have to be increased to deal with the large number of farm families affected.”