DISASTERS

Officials warn of floodwater risks in soaked Midwest states

Joseph Fiorilli is ready to go home, even though most everything he left behind when the flooded Meramec River inundated his eastern Missouri home will be a soggy, stinky mess.

Fiorilli, his wife and their two dogs were forced to quickly leave when heavy rains pushed the river to near-record levels, some 18 feet above flood stage in Pacific, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of St. Louis.

Although water levels have dropped, Fiorilli's home in a four-unit apartment remains underwater. He expects to find his furniture, television, laptop and most everything else they left behind ruined.

"Fortunately these are all replaceable things," the 50-year-old Fiorilli said. Still, he added, "it's really scary."

Thunderstorms that started last weekend caused flooding and pushed many rivers to records levels in Missouri, Arkansas and neighboring states. Five deaths have been blamed on the floods in Missouri, while hundreds of people have been forced from their homes across the region.

River levels are mostly falling except for a few spots on the Missouri River and Mississippi River, though damage along those big rivers will be minimized by flood buyouts over the past two decades. But people living along smaller rivers — like the Meramec in suburban St. Louis and the Black River, which cuts through southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas — are dreading what they'll find.

Authorities are urging caution: Damaged buildings can pose hazards, such as electrical shock, while wildlife displaced by flooding — such as snakes, turtles and deer — could be lurking in and around homes. Health officials said floodwater contains raw sewage, chemicals and other potentially toxic items. They said children and pets should be kept out of the water.

In Valley Park, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) east of Pacific, the Meramec has dropped sharply since cresting just short of an all-time record. The lower part of the town was evacuated Monday amid worries a nearby levee wouldn't hold.

The soaked levee did hold, and Mayor Michael Pennise said Thursday that residents could return starting at 8 a.m. Friday.

St. Louis-area residents also got good news Thursday when westbound lanes of Interstate 44 reopened following a two-day shutdown. Officials were hopeful water would recede enough for eastbound lanes to open before Friday morning rush hour.

In northeast Arkansas, about 50 homes in Randolph County were destroyed or badly damaged when the Black River reached record levels. More than 100 National Guard members were dispatched after at least nine breaches were reported along a levee near the town of Pocahontas, where some residents were evacuated.

A mudslide in southwest Illinois badly damaged a home and closed a road in Caseyville, near St. Louis. And in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Southeast Missouri State University football players joined other volunteers filling sandbags to protect homes outside the floodwall that guards most of the city.

Travel was restricted on and near parts of the Mississippi River, including a 14.5-mile stretch of the river at St. Louis that was closed to barges and other vessels because of high, swift current.

In Pacific, Fiorilli was biding his time in his GMC Yukon because a local shelter for flood victims wasn't accepting dogs. "Where they won't go, I won't go," he said.

Fiorilli and his wife moved to Missouri last year to be closer to their grandchildren. He noted he's been through natural disasters before, including a Pennsylvania blizzard in the 1990s and Hurricane Charley in Florida in 2004.

But this is the worst, Fiorilli said.

"Nothing compares to the stress and fear that a flood gives you," he said.

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Suhr reported from Kansas City, Missouri.