ST. LOUIS – As swollen rivers and streams pushed to heights not seen in nearly a quarter-century, officials in Missouri and Illinois helped residents get to higher ground Wednesday amid fears that already dire conditions could worsen as floodwaters began spilling over federal levees protecting communities and farmland.
In Eureka southwest of St. Louis, firefighters and their boats have 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 the 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.
"Our crews are getting dispatched to another rescue now," Scott Barthelmass, a Eureka Fire Protection District spokesman, said mid-afternoon Wednesday as the swollen Meramec River there was cresting. "I think you're seeing people who are desperate or impatient, putting themselves in predicaments."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Wednesday that nine levees had been topped by water. Most of those earthen barriers were meant to protect farmland rather than populated areas and another was along now-deserted, manmade Chouteau Island near St. Louis on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River.
Nearly a dozen other levees considered at risk for "possible significant distress," were holding as of Wednesday evening, but people were moving out just in case. Michael Pennise, mayor of the St. Louis suburb of Valley Park, ordered mandatory evacuations for 350 to 400 homes and dozens of businesses in the section of town near the fast-rising Meramec River.
At least 20 deaths over several days in Missouri and Illinois were blamed on flooding, mostly involving vehicles that drove onto swamped roadways, and at least two people were still missing Wednesday.
And search teams went out for a third day in hopes of finding a country music singer from Arkansas who disappeared while duck hunting in a flooded area in northern Oklahoma. The floodwaters there also destroyed a leftover film set used in the 2003 remake of "Where the Red Fern Grows."
A 24-mile stretch of Interstate 44 was closed at Valley Park southwest of St. Louis due to Meramec River flooding. The 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. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has activated the National Guard to assist with security in evacuated areas and to help keep road closure sites clear.
Valley Park City Attorney Tim Engelmeyer called the governor's office to send troops to help in the evacuated area of the about 7,000-person town. He was also watching computer projections of the crest — expected to be about 3 feet higher than the record of 40 feet on Thursday — knowing that an unexpected upgrade could be enough to send water over the levee.
"We're so close," he said. "We're talking about a potential 6-inch difference."
Pennise said the corps is confident the levee, built in 2007, is safe, but 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. 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 the southwestern Missouri tourist mecca of Branson, residents of about 150 duplexes and homes had to evacuate Wednesday due to 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."
Sixty miles to the north in Pleasant Hope, the emergency management director said crews are looking for a missing motorist.
"Nobody that is living has ever seen anything like this," Rick Davis said.
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, said Mark Fuchs, a hydrologist for 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 on 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, Illinois, 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, a stop on the 19th Century Underground Railroad, was confined to high water in some basements. Firefighters and emergency road crews worked to pump out water from flooded storm drains behind a seven-foot-high, 1000-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 on Thursday, 17 feet above flood stage.
That confidence was of little consolation to Tim Meeks, who was loading vats of gourmet olive oil from his downtown market onto a trailer headed to higher ground as other employees worked to drain a basement filled with 7 feet of standing water.
"We don't keep anything down there anymore," he said. "All of our product has to go."