By Jim Salter
ST. LOUIS — Authorities urged residents to evacuate a small Missouri River town and halted traffic along a busy section of the Mississippi River near St. Louis on Wednesday, as relentless rain and an ominous forecast hovered over parts of the flood-soaked Midwest.
Heavy rains have swollen many rivers to record levels in parts of Missouri, Illinois, Oklahoma and Arkansas. Five deaths have been blamed on flooding in Missouri, while hundreds of people have been displaced and thousands more are potentially in harm’s way.
It’s unclear when river traffic would reopen along the closed 14.5-mile stretch of the Mississippi, a vital passageway for transporting agricultural products and other goods. The U.S. Coast Guard said it was necessary due to high water and a swift current.
“Our collective priority is public safety,” said Capt. Martin Malloy, commander of the Coast Guard’s Upper Mississippi River sector.
Two levees burst in rural parts of eastern Missouri and northeast Arkansas early Wednesday, though no injuries or major property damage were immediately reported.
The region was hit hard by rain over the weekend. A couple of days of calm weather followed, but forecasters expect another 2 to 4 inches of rain through Thursday in parts of the same hard-hit areas.
The new rain won’t cause most rivers to rise higher, but it will keep water levels dangerously elevated, said National Weather Service hydrologist Mark Fuchs.
— Eric Fisher (@ericfisher) May 3, 2017
That’s concerning in levee-protected towns. The longer water pushes against a levee, the more likely it is to succumb.
In Arkansas, a Black River levee was breached Wednesday morning near Pocahontas, a town of 6,400 residents about 125 miles northeast of Little Rock. Parts of the town were evacuated earlier this week as the river reached record levels, and residents in nearby areas were told to seek higher ground.
“This is a historical crest. The levees weren’t designed for overtopping,” Randolph County Judge David Jansen told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “When they go, we’re going to have a wall of water pouring out.”
In Missouri, a small levee breach along the Missouri River flooded farmland southwest of St. Louis. The breach could prove beneficial for downriver towns because enough water will flow out of the river system to lower crest predictions on the other side of the breach, Fuchs said.
Still, residents of one of those downriver towns — West Alton, where about 500 people live — were urged to evacuate on Wednesday because the levee there was threatened by the swollen river. The town is about 20 miles north of St. Louis.
The levee at Valley Park, a St. Louis suburb on the Meramec River, was saturated but holding on Wednesday. About 200 homes have been damaged in the area along the Meramec, and another 1,500 are endangered if levees and sandbags don’t hold.
In Illinois, much of the central and southern parts of the state remained under flood warnings. Two southern counties, Jackson and Franklin, declared disasters due to flood damage.
In Oklahoma, the National Weather Service issued flood warnings for several rivers in the northeast part of the state after up to 3 inches of rain fell Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. Several streets were flooded in Miami, Oklahoma.
Hundreds of roads have been closed across the region. In the St. Louis area, Interstate 44 and southbound Interstate 55 were closed, along with several other roads near the Meramec River, which turned normally minutes-long commutes into hours-long excursions.