PIEDMONT, Mo. – Rain mercifully eased up across most of southern Missouri Wednesday, but it left behind 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.
"Missourians should know that we are doing everything within our power to provide state resources to communities in need," Gov. Matt 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. He's also seeking federal disaster declarations for 70 counties and the city of St. Louis.
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.
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 were in Greene County in the Springfield area, including a 67-year-old man who drove his car into a flooded creek 1 mile east of the city. 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 when 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.
Blunt activated the Missouri National Guard. Hundreds of roads were closed in southern, central and eastern Missouri because of high water.
Flash flooding was the biggest problem, but some rivers were also rising significantly. The National Weather Service is forecasting record flooding along the Meramec at some spots, threatening towns like Eureka, Fenton and Valley Park, where residents have begun to evacuate. The Black, Big and St. Francis rivers were also expected to see significant flooding.
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.
By Wednesday, the rain gradually was shifting east to the Ohio Valley, the National Weather Service said. In Cape Girardeau, where 12 inches caused flooding in the streets, at least two private levees were reported breached.
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.
Tammy Hamilton, 30, of Piedmont, staying at a shelter with her family, started to cry as she contemplated their future. Their flooded trailer was now uninhabitable.
Before their rescue, she believed her family was going to die.
Piedmont's municipal water system and long distance service were still out.
South of Winona in Shannon County, the Missouri Water Patrol rescued two boys from fast-moving water and debris in Hurricane Creek, but even the rescuers had to be rescued.
Firefighters and police were called to pull motorists out of flooded roads in and around Springfield, said Greene County Emergency Management Director Ryan Nicholls.
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.
Galena, which promotes itself as a canoeing and fishing center, has about 450 people and sits mainly on a hill above the river. The flood closed one of two main highways into town when the river came too close to topping a high concrete bridge for State Highway 176.