Rivers Crest at Near-Record Level in Midwest Floods

Residents of small towns along the Meramec River breathed a sigh of relief Saturday as the stream finally crested following days of flooding caused by torrential rainfall across the Midwest.

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At Valley Park, the river rose to a peak of 37.8 feet Saturday morning, well above the flood stage of 16 feet but still below the record of 39.7 feet, according to the National Weather Service.

It was the first trial of the town's $49 million levee, which stands a few feet above Saturday's crest and was designed to withstand the biggest flood that might be expected in a century.

"It's a 100-year event, and it's a 100-year levee," said Army Corps of Engineers Col. Lewis Setliff. "It got tested, and it passed."

Elsewhere, rivers were still rising in southwest Illinois and parts of Arkansas, chasing people from their homes and into shelters. Rivers had mostly begun receding in Ohio.

At least 16 deaths have been linked to the weather over the past week, and two people are missing in Arkansas.

Thousands of people in Missouri had fled to Red Cross shelters or to the homes of friends or relatives.

The high water pushing against the other side of the Valley Park levee didn't bother customers at Meramec Jack's bar and grill, where owner Tracy Ziegler was pouring cold beer Saturday morning.

Ziegler, 47, had been confident all along that the levee would hold.

"I haven't even lifted my computer off the floor in the office," said Ziegler, who bought the bar in 2005, just after the Army Corps of Engineers finished the levee a few hundred yards away.

In southern Missouri, water poured through several breaches in levees and led authorities to evacuate towns west of Cape Girardeau. At least 200 homes and 13 businesses had been evacuated in Cape Girardeau County, said emergency management director Dick Knaup. At least 70 Missouri counties have reported flooding this week.

Much of the flooding in Illinois was in sparsely populated areas, but several dozen people were evacuated from their homes in Murphysboro on Saturday, said Patti Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

"For some of these places, this is their 500-year flood," she said.

Authorities were keeping an eye on a levee near Grand Tower, Ill., because of a threat that the Big Muddy River could breach it and threaten the town of about 750 people. Some Illinois streams may not crest until Monday, Thompson added.

Across Arkansas, some rivers were hitting their highest levels in 90-odd years. The Arkansas River crested in Little Rock and points upstream at 22 feet, about a foot below flood stage in the capital city.

At Pine Bluff, Ark., the Arkansas River was expected to crest during the night at nearly a foot above flood level, said weather service hydrologist Steve Bays in North Little Rock.

However, no more than 50 homes were likely to be affected in Pine Bluff, said Wally Hunt, emergency management coordinator for Jefferson County.

Most people knew the water was coming and had prepared, Hunt said. "They're going in and out with boats, but have cars parked on higher ground," he said.

The Black River at Pocahontas, Ark., was projected to crest Monday at 26.5 feet, the highest there since 1915, the weather service said.

Rising water had blocked the only road into the small hamlet of Georgetown, Ark., population 126, marooning residents for as long as a week. "You just wait it out," Fire Chief Eddie Stephenson said Saturday.

In addition to this past week's rain, more snow blew through parts of the Upper Midwest on Saturday, a day after as much as a foot of snow canceled some Good Friday services in parts of southern Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota.

In Chicago, flights were mostly back on schedule by Saturday afternoon at both O'Hare and Midway airports, said Karen Pride, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Aviation. About 200 travelers were stranded overnight at O'Hare.

Milwaukee's Mitchell International Airport reopened late Saturday morning after being closed overnight because of the snow. About 200 people had to spend the night at the terminal, said airport spokeswoman Pat Rowe.

Milwaukee's 12.4 inches of snow Friday brought the city's total this season to 96 inches, its second-heaviest on record.

More snow fell Saturday in Ohio, with 7 inches at Cleveland and Youngstown.

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