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Reservoir breach inundates valley

Thu., Dec. 15, 2005, midnight

LESTERVILLE, Mo. – Trucker Greg Coleman could barely believe what hit him. He was hauling a load of zinc down a highway in southeast Missouri when a wall of water emerged from the predawn darkness and slammed into his truck.

“I had no idea where it was coming from – I travel this road every day,” Coleman said.

The wave was part of a billion-gallon torrent of water that spilled from a huge mountaintop reservoir in the Ozarks after a stone retaining wall collapsed before daybreak Wednesday. At least two homes and several vehicles were swept away and three children were critically injured, authorities said.

The 50-acre reservoir at a hydroelectric plant run by St. Louis-based utility AmerenUE emptied within minutes through the V-shaped, 600-foot-wide breach, turning the surrounding area into a landscape of flattened trees and clay-covered grass.

“We’ll never see anything like it in our lifetime again,” paramedic Chris Hoover said.

Gary Rainwater, AmerenUE’s chairman and chief executive, said it appeared that the plant’s automated instruments had pumped too much water into the reservoir and caused it to rupture. A backup set of instruments should have recognized the problem but didn’t, and the utility is trying to figure out why, AmerenUE said.

The three children – ages 7 months, 3 and 5 – were listed in critical condition at a hospital in St. Louis, 120 miles to the northeast. The two older children had breathing problems; the baby suffered from hypothermia, authorities said.

Soon after the break, police and the National Weather Service urged the 150 residents of Lesterville, about 15 miles downstream in the sparsely populated area, to move to higher ground. But by midday, once the water had flowed back into the river, the danger had passed.

Gov. Matt Blunt said AmerenUE would be held responsible for flood damage if an investigation finds the company is liable. The company said it would respond to the flooded community’s needs.


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