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.
Two levees burst in rural parts of eastern Missouri and northeast Arkansas early Wednesday, though no injuries or major property damage were immediately reported. Another levee was soaked but holding up, as were tens of thousands of sandbags, in other areas near suburban St. Louis.
River traffic was halted along a 14.5-mile stretch of the Mississippi, a vital passageway for transporting agricultural products and other goods, because of high water and a swift current, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
“Our collective priority is public safety,” said Capt. Martin Malloy, commander of the Coast Guard’s Upper Mississippi River sector.
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.
That’s concerning in levee-protected towns. The longer water pushes against a levee, the more likely it is to succumb.
In northeast Arkansas, a Black River levee was breached Wednesday morning near Pocahontas. 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.
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. In nearby Eureka, 250,000 sandbags filled by 2,000 volunteers over a three-day period also held up against the raging water, making the flood far less damaging than a similar flood in December 2015.
“We were able to save a lot a lot of homes and businesses that before we lost,” Eureka Mayor Kevin Coffey said.
About 200 homes have been damaged in the area along the Meramec, but another 1,500 have remained dry thanks to levees and sandbags.
Severe flooding on the Mississippi River convinced officials to close a bridge connecting southern Illinois and Missouri. Officials in southwest Illinois’ Randolph County say the bridge in Chester will close at noon on Thursday because flood gates are being installed on the Missouri side, preventing vehicles from getting to the bridge.
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.