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After a foot of rain falls, Midwest flees rising rivers

Residents pack up along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. At least 15 have been killed by the storm.

March 21, 2008|E.A. Torriero | Chicago Tribune

PACIFIC, MO. — A gorgeous, sunny day didn't fool dozens of residents as they packed their belongings into trucks Thursday and high-tailed it to high ground.

The rising, churning waters of the Meramec River foretold disaster: By today, the river's projected all-time crest of more than 31 feet was expected to send floodwaters gushing through the low-lying downtown, swamping the streets and floors of dozens of houses in this hamlet southwest of St. Louis.

It is a scene repeated in town after town this week in a Midwest stricken by more than a foot of rain in less than 36 hours. From Texas through Ohio, residents have fled swelling waterways while others remain mired in cleaning up the damage left by the floods.

Flood warnings were posted along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, where officials expect flooding by the weekend. In Ohio, melts from a recent snowstorm along with runoff from this week's rain caused evacuations and turned some neighborhoods into islands.

At least 15 deaths have been blamed on the storm and the ensuing floods across several states.

A drive across southern Missouri showed how nature turned much of America's heartland into a swamp.

Outside Poplar Bluff, about 140 miles south of here, rivers overflowed and three levees broke Wednesday, leaving fields covered with water. Steepled churches resembled carnival floats. Light poles looked like buoys. Warehouses were surrounded by moats. Crops poked up like swamp grass.

And in what could be some of the worst damage yet along the Meramec, some 30 miles southwest of St. Louis, crests were expected to top highs in the floods of the 1980s and 1990s.

"Noah had years to build his ark; we've got to pack and get out in a day," grumbled Jeremy Millfelt, who rented a truck and storage space to move his family's furniture and belongings out of harm's way in Pacific. "But it's better to have the notice than to get out with water pushing at your door."

Despite its location on one of America's most flood-prone rivers, this town of 7,000 has never mustered the political will to get the federal money needed to build a levee. Downriver, though, in Valley Park, residents were crossing their fingers that their town's new levee would hold.

After a flood covered most of downtown in 1994, Valley Park officials lobbied the federal government, and a three-mile earthen hill was completed in 2005 at a cost of $50 million. Built with federal funds covering about three-quarters of the cost, the levee surrounds the town like a great wall. Residents strolled along its top Thursday looking at the murky, rising Meramec.

"Oh, it'll hold," Mayor Jeffery Whitteaker said. "This is our first big test, and we are confident."

"The question is, has the levee been given enough to time to harden?" asked Mark Engleman, who has lived in Valley Park for eight years. "The town says it will take five years to settle, and it has only been three."

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