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Mississippi set to crest at St. Louis Friday as wave of high water rolls through area rivers

Updated at 9:57 a.m.  - More than a dozen people have died as a result of historic flooding throughout Missouri. And the state isn’t out of the woods just yet.

In a briefing with local officials in Franklin County, Gov. Jay Nixon said that 14 people have died as a result of flooding. Most of the deaths occurred after people tried to drive through floodwater.

“If we could say anything over and over and over – it’s don’t drive into water,” Nixon said.

He said the flooding that Missouri is experiencing is historic – and profoundly dangerous: “But the bottom line is you’ve got more water – higher water – than you had in 1993 in many locations – which means this is very dangerous. You’ve already had a number of deaths. And we’re out there not only trying to manage a situation, but to save lives.”

Earlier in the day, President Barack Obama called the governor to offer condolences for the loss of life and to let the state know that his staff is monitoring the situation and has been directed to work with the governor’s team on bringing in the federal assistance that might be needed.

Franklin County Presiding Commissioner John Griesheimer has seen some big floods in his county -- especially the Great Flood of 1993. But he said the flooding over the past few days "is really the worst in the history of Franklin County," primarily because the Missouri, Meramec and Bourbeuse River have swelled to such high levels.

"Your interstates are choked. And it’s hard for people to really get around," Griesheimer said. "In fact, there are a lot of people who have actually been isolated for a couple of days because of this."  

Pacific resident Carolyn Davis drove up to a steep bluff to look at how the floods damaged her town. She says she’s never seen anything like this: “You know you’re looking at landmarks that have never been under – the opera house or the florist shop that’s been there forever. You know restaurants – families and people. It’s just crazy.”

And C.J. Robbins said the bitter cold is making the disaster hard to take for longtime Pacific residents. 

 “A lot of people have lost their houses. At least for quite awhile, there’s going to be a lot that has to be done," said Robbins, who has lived in Pacific for her entire life. "A whole lot of cleanup in this cold weather – this time of year it’s horrible.”

While waters appear to have crested in Franklin County, Nixon says waters could rise further elsewhere.

Residents stand atop a bluff at Blackburn Park in Pacific, Missouri Wednesday afternoon to take in the damage to their town.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Residents stand atop a bluff at Blackburn Park in Pacific Wednesday afternoon to take in the damage to their town.

River traffic

The Mississippi River is expected to crest in St. Louis later this week -- see projections for crests from the Corps of Engineers --  and then quickly recede.

The swollen Mississippi River has barge traffic at a standstill north of St. Louis. Lt. Sean Haley, a spokesperson for the U.S. Coast Guard, says the river is moving fast and picking up debris, making it dangerous to navigate.

“Most, if not all of the marine industry, at least that we’ve spoken with, have their barge fleets tied up —usually on double lines — to guard against extreme weather, to guard against this surge and are essentially waiting it out.”

Haley says the river is cresting like a giant wave moving south, which could cause other closures in the coming days.

Russell Errett, a hydraulic engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, says they’re keeping a close eye on the river gauge in Chester, Ill., where several tributaries merge into the Mississippi. The bridge across the river there, connecting Illinois and Missouri, has been closed, and officials are closely watching the situation at the nearby Menard Correctional Center, a maximum security prison.

“Once we get that initial wave that’s coming through there, it’s going to dictate what the crests will be at Cape Girardeau, Thebes and even Cairo.”

Errett says the Corps is already preparing for flooding in the New Orleans area.

The Meramec River, which has caused significant damage, is starting to recede in Union. But the crest is still rolling toward the Mississippi. The high point expected to be reached in Valley Park Thursday, for instance, is 44.1 feet, which is 4.4 feet about the record set there in 1982.

A flooded row of homes is seen just south of the train tracks in downtown Pacific.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
A flooded row of homes is seen just south of the train tracks in downtown Pacific.

  Traffic woes

The floods are impacting traffic all over the state. By mid-day Wednesday, Interstate 44 was closed for a 24-mile stretch from Interstate 270 all the way to Route 100 in Gray Summit in Franklin County.

Wednesday night I-55 was closed in both directions at the Meramec River south of I-270.  The Missouri Department of Transportation does not have a good estimate on when I-55 will reopen, but possibly on Friday.  MODOT reports that more than 225 roads are closed due to flooding.

Missouri drivers should check www.modot.org. Illinois road closures can be found at the Illinois Department of Transportation website.

Fenton wastewater plant

Floodwaters have inundated the Fenton Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is releasing millions of gallons of untreated sewage into the rising Meramec River. Electricity was shut off after floodwaters reached the control room, and workers removed as much equipment as possible from the facility on Tuesday.

Typically, the Fenton plant processes a little under 7 million gallons a day, but it was processing at a rate of 24 million gallons a day when it shut down, said Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District spokesperson Sean Hadley.

“[That’s] well over the capacity it was designed to handle. We have to go in and assess exactly what happened. There may be some issues down with the collection system, with some of the water getting into the system and causing the flow to go up,” Hadley said.

The $15 million plant, though relatively small, runs at an annual cost of $1 million a year.

MSD staff placed sandbags at Grand Glaize Wastewater Treatment Plant in Valley Park all day Tuesday and Wednesday to keep the flood waters out and keep the plant in operation.
Credit Provided by the Metropolitan Sewer District
MSD staff placed sandbags at Grand Glaize Wastewater Treatment Plant in Valley Park all day Tuesday and Wednesday to keep the flood waters out and keep the plant in operation.

Hadley says MSD has also plugged nearby manholes and sewer mains, hoping to prevent sewage from backing up into people’s homes. On Wednesday, workers piled sand bags around Grand Glaize Wastewater Treatment Plant in Valley Park, which was still operational at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

With no way to assess damage at the plant before floodwaters recede, Hadley said MSD is working through about 1,200 calls for service over backups in basements and backyards, particularly in north St. Louis County.

Residents are cautioned to avoid contact with flood waters, as they can carry harmful bacteria. When cleaning up flood damage indoors, the CDC recommends wearing rubber boots, gloves and goggles.

Want to help?

The United Way of Greater St. Louis’ Volunteer Center and AmeriCorps-St. Louis are working to connect volunteers with sandbagging and other flood protection efforts.  STLVolunteer.org will have a list of needs. According to a news release, those who want to work must be 18 or accompanied by a parent or guardian, and no one younger than 13 can help. Closed-toe shoes and gloves are required.

Durrie Bouscaren provided information for this article.

Inform our coverage

If you have a flood story, please share with St. Louis Public Radio through the Public Insight Network. Tell us: How is the flood affecting you?

Tim Lloyd was a founding host of We Live Here from 2015 to 2018 and was the Senior Producer of On Demand and Content Partnerships until Spring of 2020.
Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.