PACIFIC, Mo. – A gorgeous sunny day didn’t fool dozens of residents into complacency as they packed up most everything they own into trucks Thursday and high-tailed it to high ground.
The rising, churning waters of the Meramec River foretold the story of disaster to come: by today the river’s projected all-time-high 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 in the Midwest struck by a deluge this week of more than a foot of rain in less than 36 hours. From Texas through Ohio, residents fled swelling waterways while others remained mired in cleaning up after the floods passed and left behind muddy damage.
Flood warnings were posted along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers where officials expect minor flooding by the weekend. In Ohio, melts from a recent massive snowstorm along with runoff from this week’s rain caused evacuations and turned some neighborhoods into islands.
At least fifteen 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 120 miles southwest 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 sat like they were surrounded by moats. Crops poked out 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 being located on one of America’s most-flood prone rivers, this town of 7,000 never mustered the political will to get the federal money needed to build a levee. Further downriver, though, in Valley Park, that city was keeping its fingers crossed that its new levee would hold.
After a flood covered most of the downtown in 1994, Valley Park officials lobbied the federal government and a three-mile-long earthen hill was completed in 2005 for $50 million. Built with about three-quarters of the cost from federal funds, the levee surrounds the town like a great wall and is designed to contain waters as high as 43 feet – three feet higher than the projected crest at Valley Park.
“Oh, it’ll hold,” said Mayor Jeffery Whitteaker. “This is our first big test and we are confident.”