ST. LOUIS — Hundreds of residents in low-lying areas west of St. Louis are bracing for record-level flood surges expected to hit Friday, even as heavy rains eased up across most of southern Missouri.
Left behind are a soggy mess of flooded-out roads, stranded motorists and a clean-up bill likely to run in the millions.
With at least five people dead and hundreds more displaced, authorities are straining to keep pace with some of the worst flooding to hit their region in decades. The National Weather Service is forecasting record flooding along the Meramec River near St. Louis.
The floodwaters are threatening towns like Eureka, Fenton and Valley Park, where residents already have begun to evacuate. The Black, Big and St. Francis rivers also were expected to see significant flooding.
The town of Fenton put out a call asking volunteers to help put down sandbags against the floodwaters Thursday. Gov. Matt Blunt said cities can count on the state for help as he activated the Missouri National Guard.
“Missourians should know that we are doing everything within our power to provide state resources to communities in need,” Blunt said.
He said the state was checking on nursing homes and hospitals, mobilizing rescues, opening shelters, closing highways and working to ensure safe drinking water.
Wednesday night, President Bush declared a major disaster in Missouri and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts in areas affected by flooding. Seventy counties and the city of St. Louis also are eligible for federal funding for emergency protective measures.
The National Weather Service is predicting the Meramec River will crest in Eureka at 43 feet on Saturday, surpassing the December 1982 record flood of 42.9 feet.
In Pacific, the river is expected to crest at 31.5 feet by midnight Friday.
“This is obviously a big one,” weather service hydrologist Mark Fuchs said.
The sudden and ceaseless rain that began Monday and continued virtually nonstop until Wednesday killed five people and left hundreds out of their homes. The flooding sparked dozens of rescues, breached levees, prompted evacuations and closed hundreds of roads and a railroad line.
In the town of Chaffee, southwest of Cape Girardeau, 45 nursing home residents were evacuated Wednesday after a foot of flood water filled the parking lot.
Americare president Clay Crosson said the nursing home moved residents to safety because the sewage and septic system was backing up.
He also said “EMS personnel were concerned if the water kept rising, they may not be able to help us with ambulances.”
The Missouri Water Patrol said officers rescued an elderly couple whose car had washed downstream after a levee breached Wednesday outside Poplar Bluff.
The Patrol said it was also helping with evacuations in some small towns south of Cape Girardau such as Dutchtown, Delta, Allensville and Whitewater.
On Wednesday, the death toll rose to five when searchers found the body of Mark G. Speir Jr., 19, in southwest Missouri, about 2 miles downstream from where he was reported swept into a creek in Monett the previous evening.
The Lawrence County Sheriff’s Department said Speir had apparently gone to look at flooded Kelly Creek and fell in. Rescuers had resumed the search after dawn Wednesday and found the body around 9:30 a.m.
“He was going down the creek screaming and hollering,” Lawrence County emergency management chief Mike Rowe said.
Parts of southern Missouri received as much as 12 inches of rain, leaving residents and community officials from Springfield to Cape Girardeau assessing the damage.
Two other victims, including a 67-year-old man who drove his car into a flooded creek 1 mile east of the city, were in Greene County in the Springfield area. The Missouri State Highway Patrol says Ronald Rudd’s car was swept 600 feet downstream Tuesday night and became lodged in debris.
Missouri Department of Transportation worker Joshua Slatten, 21, of Springfield, died Tuesday after his dump truck was struck by a semi as Slatten was setting up barriers along a flooded area of U.S. 65. He died when his car was pushed off the road by floodwaters, according to the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency.
An 81-year-old man was found dead around noon Tuesday in the hard-hit town of Ellington, about 120 miles southwest of St. Louis, said Missouri State Water Patrol spokesman Lt. Nicholas Humphrey. Walter Baker was found drowned in floodwaters near a cluster of debris.
State officials confirmed another victim was recovered from a truck in Bollinger County. The Southeast Missourian newspaper in Cape Girardeau identified him as 69-year-old Thurman Shelton of Jackson whose pickup was swept into a creek in Marble Hill.
Two levees along the Black near Poplar Bluff broke around 2 p.m. Wednesday, leading to mandatory evacuations of residents living nearby. The river topped other levees elsewhere in Butler County. The sheriff’s department spent the day getting people to safety, Sgt. Scott Phelps said.
The heavy rains also pushed the Missouri River at or near flood stage through much of the central and eastern portions of the state. In Jefferson City, the river pushed out of its banks Wednesday but remains several feet below natural flood stage.
But in Hermann, the river climbed more than 3 1/2 feet above flood stage.
Two of the hardest hit towns were only a few miles apart in southeast Missouri — Ellington and Piedmont, where homes and businesses were flooded and evacuated.
Wayne County Emergency Management Director Eric Fuchs said he had heard of rescues off rooftops and trees in Piedmont.
“We had some serious touch-and-go rescues yesterday,” he said.
The damage hasn’t been assessed yet, but Fuchs predicted it would be extensive.
Some residents burst into tears as they contemplated what they lost in the flood and where they would live if their houses and mobile homes couldn’t be salvaged.
Retired truck driver George Slayton, 65, didn’t get emotional but quietly said he just wasn’t sure how much water from the Black River flowed into his home. He only had time to grab some heart and cholesterol medication and a change of clothes.
Slayton found shelter at a church and slept Tuesday night in the sanctuary on a padded pew.
“I believe in God and everything, but he does things sometimes that make you wonder,” he said.
Piedmont’s municipal water system and long-distance service were still not operating late Wednesday.
In Rogersville, a town of about 1,500 people 20 miles east of Springfield, water from flooded creeks flowed into as many as three dozen homes.
The James River was approaching record levels of more than 33 feet above normal at the small Ozarks town of Galena west of Branson, flooding a commercial strip, authorities said.
“We probably have between a foot and 3 feet of water in those buildings,” Stone County emergency management chief Tom Martin said.