As swollen rivers and streams pushed to heights not seen in nearly a quarter century, officials in Missouri helped residents get to higher ground Wednesday as floodwaters began spilling over federal levees protecting communities and farmland.
Nine levees in Missouri and Illinois had been topped by water, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Wednesday, although some of those earthen barriers were meant to protect farmland rather than populated areas.
Nearly a dozen other levees were at risk for “possible significant distress” but were holding as of Wednesday evening, the corps said.
But Missourians were moving out just in case, including from the St. Louis suburb of Valley Park near the fast-rising Meramec River.
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Swollen rivers and streams have been pushed to heights not seen since the massive 1993 floods in some places.
Missouri’s flood toll rose to 14 on Wednesday as the latest victim was found in Crawford County. All but one of the Missouri victims died when their vehicles drove into flooded roadways.
Searches were still underway for missing people in Polk and Vernon counties.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon on Wednesday toured flooded areas near the St. Louis area community of Pacific, just hours before the Meramec River’s projected crest at more than 18 feet above flood stage, just short of a 1982 record.
Some parts of interstates in Missouri reopened Wednesday, while others — including Interstate 44 near Valley Park — were still covered by water. The Interstate 44 closure forced traffic onto other nearby roads, creating gridlock in the St. Louis region. Officials said the highway will likely remain closed through at least Friday.
Nixon has activated the National Guard to assist with security in evacuated areas and to help keep road closure sites clear.
Valley Park officials closely followed computer projections of the Meramec River crest — expected Thursday to be about 3 feet higher than the record of 40 feet — knowing that an unexpected upgrade could be enough to send water over the levee.
Valley Park Mayor Michael Pennise said the corps was confident the levee, built in 2007, was safe, but he ordered evacuations as a precaution.
“You don’t want to think negative, but we’d rather save a life than a couch,” Pennise said.
Becky Bode, a 54-year-old postal carrier whose route includes lower Valley Park, said the area used to flood so frequently that residents mostly had flood insurance. But with the levee, many don’t.
Still, she’s not worried about the residents.
“They’ve been through it before,” Bode said. “If it floods, they'll pop back up and get going again.”
In Eureka southwest of St. Louis, firefighters and their boats had been in high demand since Tuesday, accounting for roughly four dozen rescues of people in their homes, businesses or vehicles.
Television news footage showed at least one home there drifting in a swollen river Wednesday, when firefighters rescued by boat a man and a dog as floodwaters lapped at the eaves of the house roof on which they’d been trapped for a night.
In Pleasant Hope in southwest Missouri, emergency management director Rick Davis said of the flooding: “Nobody that is living has ever seen anything like this.”
In the southwestern Missouri tourist mecca of Branson, residents of about 150 duplexes and homes had to evacuate Wednesday because of flooding from a manmade lake. But the shopping district along the lake was still open, Fire Chief Ted Martin said, adding: “It has been packed with people, and I don’t know where all of them have come from.”
Three-day rainfall totals of 9 to 11 inches were records in some parts of an area that stretched from southwest to east-central Missouri, according to the National Weather Service in St. Louis. Rainfall totals of that magnitude occur only every 100 to 300 years, according to rainfall frequency data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Mississippi River is expected to reach nearly 13 feet above flood stage Thursday at St. Louis, which would be the second worst flood on record, behind only the devastating 1993 flood.
In the historic riverfront city of Alton, Ill., some downtown business owners continued to scramble Wednesday to keep out rising water from the Mississippi River.
Most of the damage in the city 15 miles north of St. Louis was confined to high water in basements. Firefighters and emergency road crews worked to pump out water from flooded storm drains behind a 7-foot-high, 1,000-foot-long temporary retaining wall reinforced by gravel and sandbags.
The Argosy Alton casino, which shut down on Monday, remained closed. So did the southbound lane of the main highway connecting the city to Missouri.
Alton Mayor Brant Walker said he’s “very optimistic that what we’ve built here will hold” as the Mississippi River is expected to crest at 38 feet Thursday, 17 feet above flood stage.
In Illinois, severe flooding forced the closure of at least three historic sites.
The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency said Wednesday that Fort de Chartres, Fort Kaskaskia and Pierre Menard Home had been temporarily shut down because rising water made the sites and nearby roads unsafe. All three sites are in Randolph County, about 40 miles south of St. Louis.
Volunteers were clearing Forte de Chartres, the re-creation of a fort built by the French military in the 1750s. It was declared a national historic landmark in 1960.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama spoke to Nixon by phone on Wednesday while the president was vacationing in Hawaii. The president pledged the federal government’s continued help dealing with severe weather.
The White House said Obama thanked Nixon for his efforts and offered condolences for those who have died in the flooding.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Obama told Nixon that he had asked his staff to monitor the events closely and to work with Nixon’s team to provide any help necessary from the federal government.
Despite the flooding crisis, the Army Corps of Engineers said it is not planning to open a southeastern Missouri floodway in response to the swollen Mississippi River — at least not yet.
The corps put the floodway near Charleston, Mo., to use in 2011, blasting holes in the Birds Point levee to displace enough water to save nearby Cairo, Ill., from a potentially devastating flood.
Cairo is at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. In 2011, the Ohio there crested a record 22 feet above flood stage before the floodway was thrust into use, swamping 130,000 acres. Several Missouri homes were destroyed.
But the Army Corps said the crest at Cairo would need to reach 20 feet above flood stage. And as of midday Wednesday, the river was expected to peak a foot below that late Sunday or early Monday.
In northern Oklahoma, crews on Wednesday were in their third day of searching for a country music singer from Arkansas who disappeared Sunday while duck hunting with a friend in severe weather.
Craig Strickland went missing with his friend, Chase Morland, on Oklahoma’s Kaw Lake near the Kansas border. Search teams found the pair’s capsized boat Sunday along with Strickland’s dog, which was alive. Morland’s body was recovered Monday.
Strickland is the lead singer of the Arkansas-based country-rock band Backroad Anthem. The band had been scheduled to perform Thursday in Little Rock, Ark., but that show has been canceled.