Water from a rare, record-setting winter flood was receding in the St. Louis area Friday, allowing some major roadways to reopen and offering hope for flood-weary residents that the worst of this sudden catastrophe was behind them.
For others, the worst is still to come, with expected crests in coming days in southern Missouri, southern Illinois, then onto Arkansas, Tennessee and other southern states.
But the impact isn't expected to rival what was seen this week in suburban St. Louis. The city itself, protected by a flood wall and a sloping geography that keeps downtown and most homes out of harm's way, remained mostly dry. The southern suburbs were another story. The Mississippi River fell short of a record crest by about 7½ feet at St. Louis, and damage on the Missouri River was limited.
The biggest problem was the Meramec River, a smaller tributary of the Mississippi. Some points along the river topped the 1993 record by 4 feet, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of homes and businesses in southwest St. Louis suburbs like Pacific, Eureka, Valley Park and Arnold. Several hundred homes took in water, and residents are just beginning to assess the damage.
With water finally going down, the Missouri Department of Transportation was able to reopen northbound lanes of Interstate 55 south of St. Louis on Thursday, about a day after they were closed, and southbound lanes opened Friday morning.
MoDOT spokeswoman Shaunda White said 76,000 vehicles pass through that area on a typical day, "so that's going to be a significant relief."
Water also shrank from Interstate 44, where a 24-mile stretch southwest of St. Louis has been closed for two days. White said crews still needed to clear debris and ensure the roadway was safe before reopening it, though that also could happen Friday.
The devastating flood, fueled by more than 10 inches of rain over a three-day period that began last weekend, is blamed for 20 deaths. Four others are still missing — two teenagers in Illinois and two men in southwest Missouri.
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner was slated to visit flood-damaged areas on Friday, planning stops at Alton, Grafton and four other communities. Rauner has declared 12 counties disaster areas.
In Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, south of St. Louis, the Mississippi was still rising but there was good news: The crest forecast for late Friday or early Saturday, once expected to be a record, was now expected to fall about 2 feet short of the 1993 mark. Many downtown merchants had cleared out, just to be on the safe side, in case the levee gave way.
"We are breathing a bit easier," said Sandra Cabot, director of tourism for the historic French settlement that dates to the 18th century. "We are very confident in our levee. We've never been tested at this level before."
Other southern Missouri and Illinois towns were getting ready for the high-water mark. A record-tying crest was expected by the weekend in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, but a floodwall offers protection and is not considered endangered. Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers meet, seemed safe, despite a near-record crest prediction.
It appeared the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would not need to blast a hole in the Birds Point waterway in southeast Missouri, as it did in 2011 to relieve pressure from the flood protection at nearby Cairo, Illinois. The Corps said the intentional breach would be considered if the Ohio River reached 60 feet at Cairo, but the weather service projects it will top out at 57.5 feet on Sunday.
In Eureka, Missouri, firefighters and their boats have been in high demand, accounting for roughly 100 rescues of people in their homes, businesses or vehicles since Tuesday, said Scott Barthelmass, a Eureka Fire Protection District spokesman.
Nine levees — five on the Mississippi River, three on the Missouri and one on Illinois' Kaskaskia River — were topped by water this week, but those earthen barriers protect farmland and otherwise unpopulated areas.