Dozens of counties across Missouri, Arkansas and Illinois have been declared disaster areas by state governors.
“Nobody that is living has ever seen anything like this,” said Rick Davis, the emergency management director in Pleasant Hope in western Missouri.
Three-day rainfall totals of 9-11 inches (up to 270mm) were records in some parts of an area that stretched from southwest to east-central Missouri, said Mark Fuchs, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service in St. Louis. Rainfall totals of that magnitude occur only every 100 to 300 years, according to rainfall frequency data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Around St Louis, Missouri’s second most populous city, suburban officials began mandatory evacuations on Wednesday. In areas that border the Mississippi, Missouri and Meramec rivers around St Louis, flood warnings are not expected to lift until 7 January, the NWS said. Federal officials are further monitoring 19 vulnerable levees in the region, the Associated Press said.
Along the Meramec river, a smaller waterway which flows through the western suburbs of St Louis, waters are expected to crest at records levels on Thursday morning.
In Valley Park, a suburb 18 miles west of St Louis along the Meramec, mandatory evacuations were instated after the NWS told the town’s mayor that water levels would continue to rise. Waters are forecast to crest there more than 3ft above record levels by Thursday, and 27ft above minimum flood levels.
“Once the water recedes to safe levels, the evacuation will be lifted,” Valley Park’s mayor, Michael A Pennisse, said, in a note that told residents evacuations would begin at 7am on Wednesday. “We have been assured by the US Corps of Engineers that our levee is in great condition.” He also promised “round-the-clock security and law enforcement” for evacuated areas, addressing fears that flooded areas may fall victim to looters.
South-east of Valley Park in Arnold, Missouri, waters are forecast to reach 46.1ft around the same time, nearly a foot above the record for flooding, and 22.1ft above minimum flood levels.
Along the Mississippi river in Alton, Illinois, about 25 miles north of St Louis, the city’s mayor asked residents to volunteer to make sandbags along the river. The city’s casino, which stayed open during a disastrous flood in 1993, has shut down. Power at several locations around the town has been shut off by police, a reporter for the Alton Telegraph said.
An hour south of St Louis, in Chester, Illinois, the Menard County correctional facility transferred inmates out of the prison on Tuesday as floodwaters threatened. In Chester, the Mississippi is expected to reach record levels at 49.7ft. A local newspaper, the Randolph County Herald Tribune, has declared the disaster the “great flood of ’15”.
A wastewater treatment plant in Fenton, Missouri, stopped operating on Tuesday, officials suspect because of the high water levels. The plant sent untreated sewage into flooded rivers and streams in the area.
“We suspect the river is going to go three feet above our levee. We expect this plant to be flooded completely before the event is over,” the metropolitan sewer district director, Brian Hoelscher, told local television station KMOV.
The plant was designed to treat 6.75m gallons of waste a day, but was treating 24m gallons a day due to flooding at the time officials discovered the plant stopped operating, KMOV reported.
Seven Illinois counties were declared disaster areas by Governor Bruce Rauner. Missouri’s governor, Jay Nixon, activated the national guard on Tuesday. In Arkansas, Governor Asa Hutchinson declared a dozen counties disaster areas on Tuesday, and added nine more counties on Wednesday. Oklahoma’s Governor Mary Fallin extended a state of emergency in all 77 counties of the state because of flooding and wintry conditions.
Of predictions released by the NWS field office in St Louis, just the Bourbeuse river near Union, Missouri, is expected to fall before the New Year weekend, after it crested at 34.3ft, 0.8ft above the record.
Disastrous flooding in 1993 set several records for high water levels in the upper midwest, and also made it one of the most expensive years on record for damages caused by flooding.
Floods in 1993 caused more than $30bn in damages nationwide. That is just below 2005, when flooding cost the country an estimated $55bn after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf coast. Each year, flooding causes about $1-2bn in damages, according to figures collected annually by the NWS.