People hang out by the recently built-up levees holding rising Mississippi River waters at bay in Kimmswick, Mo., on Dec. 31, 2015.
Houses are surrounded by floodwater Dec. 31, 2015, in Arnold, Mo.(Jeff Roberson / AP)
In this aerial photo, people use a canoe to navigate a flooded street, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015, in Arnold, Mo.(Laurie Skrivan, St. Louis Post-Dispatch via Associated Press)
A baseball field in Eureka, Mo., is submerged in floodwater Dec. 30, 2015.(Michael B. Thomas / Getty Images)
People use a canoe to navigate a flooded street Dec. 31, 2015, in Arnold, Mo.(Jeff Roberson / AP)
Scott Davitz, from left, Eric Wright, Troy Masters, Jim Bready and Adam Gibbs pack sandbags around Pam Haley’s home Dec. 30, 2015, in Evansville, Ill.(Isaac Smith / For the Chicago Tribune)
Floodwaters from the Kaskaskia River cover parts of Main Street in Evansville, Ill., on Dec. 30, 2015.(Isaac Smith / Chicago Tribune)
Sandbags are packed to barricade shops along Liberty Street on Dec. 30, 2015, in Evansville, Ill.(Isaac Smith / Chicago Tribune)
Floodwaters from the Mississippi River are held back by a flood gate Dec. 30, 2015, in Prarie Du Rocher, Ill.(Isaac Smith / Chicago Tribune)
Water seeps through a flood gate on Dec. 30, 2015, in Prarie Du Rocher, Ill.(Isaac Smith / Chicago Tribune)
Saline Valley Fire Protection District firefighters, including Nathan Miller, right, help four people and three dogs escape a flooded mobile home on Babs Lane at Old Highway 141 south of Fenton, Mo., on Dec. 30, 2015.(Robert Cohen / St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
Members of the Eureka High School football team and their families dump floodwater from the basement of a home Dec. 30, 2015, in Eureka, Mo.(Huy Mach / St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
Homes are surrounded by floodwaters Dec. 30, 2015, in Pacific, Mo. Rare winter flooding threatened nearly two dozen federal levees in Missouri and Illinois as rivers rose, prompting evacuations in several places.(Jeff Roberson / AP)
A resident canoes down a street submerged in floodwater from the Meramac River on Dec. 30, 2015, in Arnold, Mo. The St. Louis area and surrounding region are experiencing record cresting of the Mississippi, Missouri and Meramac rivers after days of record rainfall.(Michael B. Thomas / Getty Images)
Plein air artist Jan Trager of Pacific, Mo., paints a flooded portion of South Fourth Street on Dec. 30, 2015. Trager said she’s witnessed previous floods but has never seen waters cross over to the right side of the train tracks.(Huy Mach / St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
Floodwaters cover Interstate 44 on Dec 30, 2015, in Valley Park, Mo. Rare winter flooding threatened nearly two dozen federal levees in Missouri and Illinois as rivers rose, prompting evacuations in several places.(Jeff Roberson / AP)
Equipment is surrounded by floodwaters Dec. 30, 2015, in Valley Park, Mo. Rare winter flooding threatened nearly two dozen federal levees in Missouri and Illinois as rivers rose, prompting evacuations in several places.(Jeff Roberson / AP)
Residents launch a boat to go check on a home in a mobile home park flooded by waters from the nearby Big River on Dec. 30, 2015, near High Ridge, Mo. Historic rainfall across the Midwest has pushed the Meramec and Big rivers in Missouri to record levels.(Sid Hastings / EPA)
Vehicles and homes sit in floodwaters from the nearby Big River in a mobile home park Dec. 30, 2015, near High Ridge, Mo.(Sid Hastings / EPA)
Residents watch as floodwaters from the nearby Meramec River fill the traffic lanes of Interstate 44 and Missouri State Route 141 on Dec. 30, 2015, near Valley Park, Mo.(Sid Hastings / EPA)
John Tosti, owner of Tosti’s Transmission, wades into the floodwater after inspecting his business Dec. 30, 2015, in Fenton, Mo.(Michael B. Thomas / Getty Images)
Floodwaters from the nearby Meramec River fill the traffic lanes of Interstate 44 and Missouri State Route 141 near Valley Park, Mo., just west of St. Louis, on Dec. 30, 2015.(Sid Hastings / EPA)
A worker stacks sandbags outside a business Dec. 30, 2015, in Fenton, Mo.(Michael B. Thomas / Getty Images)
A northern view of flooded homes on First Street on Dec. 29, 2015, in Pacific, Mo.(Huy Mach / St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
Hundreds of volunteers gather at River Des Peres Park on Dec. 29, 2015, to fill sandbags as part of an effort by the street and parks departments to hold off parts of the River des Peres in St. Louis.(Huy Mach / St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
A view of the Mississippi River and the Poplar Street Bridge on Dec. 29, 2015, as it enters into downtown St. Louis.(Huy Mach / St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
A QuikTrip gas station along U.S. 50 and State Route 47 is flooded Dec. 29, 2015, in Union, Mo.(Huy Mach / St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
West Alton Fire Department Lt. T.J. Ehmler, 30, helps retrieve a partially submerged car in floodwaters on U.S. 94 near St. Louis Street on Dec. 29, 2015, in St. Louis. The driver of the car was not injured.(Cristina M. Fletes / St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
Volunteers from the armed forces, Missouri Eastern Correctional Center and residents build sandbags Dec. 29, 2015, to prevent the Big River from flooding a water treatment plant that serves High Ridge, House Springs and Fenton, Mo.(Cristina M. Fletes / St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
Michael Wilson, 45, left, and Bernard Wilson, 27, inmates at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center, join several dozen volunteers in building sandbags to prevent the Big River from flooding a water treatment plant Dec. 29, 2015.(Cristina M. Fletes / St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
Brittany Cole recovers photos of her children amid the damage Dec. 29, 2015, at her home just north of Carthage, Mo. The Coles, who have four children, said prior to the flooding, they had spent $10,000 remodeling the home with new floors, cabinets, furniture and appliances.(Jill Toyoshiba / Kansas City Star)
Mark Diehl, left, and Dale Atchley move items to higher ground at the Fenton Feed Mill on Dec. 29, 2015, in Fenton, Mo.(J.B. Forbes / St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
People stand on a hill to get a better look at floodwaters from the Bourbeuse River on Dec. 29, 2015, in Union, Mo.(Jeff Roberson / AP)
Jason Fitzgibbons, center, helps fill sandbags with other volunteers Dec. 29, 2015, in St. Louis. Flooding across Missouri has forced the closings of hundreds of roads and threatened homes.(Jeff Roberson / AP)
Floodwaters from the Bourbeuse River surround businesses Dec. 29, 2015, in Union, Mo.(Jeff Roberson / AP)
Floodwaters from the Bourbeuse River surround businesses in Union, Mo., on Dec. 29, 2015.(Jeff Roberson / AP)
Against a gray winter sky, volunteers use shovels to help fill sandbags Dec. 29, 2015, in St. Louis.(Jeff Roberson / AP)
A mailbox stands in floodwaters in Pontoon Beach, Ill., on Dec. 29, 2015.(Chris Lee / St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
A minivan drives through floodwaters covering a street in Pontoon Beach, Ill., on Dec. 28, 2015.(Chris Lee / St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
Floodwater was starting to recede at some water-logged Midwestern communities Thursday, but hundreds of homes were damaged, hundreds more remained evacuated, and getting through St. Louis by car, boat or train was increasingly difficult.
The Mississippi River neared record levels at many places, and a tributary, the Meramec River, surged 4 feet beyond previous records before finally starting to fall. The rare wintertime flooding was spurred by 10 inches of rain or more over a three-day period across a wide swath of Missouri and Illinois.
Twenty deaths were blamed on flooding — nearly all of them from motorists driving onto wet roads — and searches continued for two missing men in southwest Missouri and two missing teenagers in southern Illinois.
Some flood-weary communities were getting relief: The Missouri, Meramec and Mississippi rivers were cresting throughout the St. Louis region. The Mississippi River was slowly dropping at St. Louis after peaking about 7 1/2 feet below the 1993 record. A floodwall offered solid protection, but as the waters flow south, points in southern Missouri and Illinois were awaiting the crest.
The Meramec, southwest of St. Louis, continued to be the biggest problem, even as it began to drop after reaching record levels in the Missouri towns of Eureka, Valley Park and Arnold. Hundreds of homes were damaged in Eureka, an estimated 100 homes in Arnold were damaged, as well as dozens more in nearby Pacific.
Flooding from the Meramec forced closure of a 3-mile stretch of Interstate 55 south of St. Louis, snarling traffic for the few commuters working on the eve of the new year.
“We were out there all night sandbagging trying to hold it back as much as we could, but it was just so much,” MoDOT spokeswoman Marie Elliott said.
The only north-south alternative to I-55 was an already-congested local road.
“The other alternates that we would have sent motorists to basically have water on them as well,” Elliott said.
Adding to the road woes was the closure a day earlier of a 24-mile section of Interstate 44 just a few miles away, hampering east-west traffic, too.
A 5-mile stretch of the Mississippi River itself remained closed by order of the Coast Guard, idling barge traffic on the busy waterway.
Train service was also derailed, both passenger and freight. Amtrak suspended its St. Louis-to-Kansas City route until flooding subsides. Meanwhile, Union Pacific took two sections of track in Missouri and two in Illinois out of service due to rising waters. The Missouri stretches span from Jefferson City to St. Louis and St. Louis to De Soto; The Illinois stretches are from Mount Vernon to Percy and Springfield to Nelson.
In Eureka, 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.
Nearly a dozen other levees considered at risk were holding, though people were evacuated just in case. Valley Park officials had ordered residents of nearly 400 homes evacuated. City leaders were weighing whether it was safe for them to return as the water had already dropped nearly a foot since its crest.
The raging water poured over sandbags at Valley Park’s sewage treatment plant, forcing its closure and allowing raw sewage to flow into the Meramec, just as it has since Monday when another wastewater plant in nearby Fenton flooded. A treatment plant in the southwest Missouri town of Springfield also flooded this week and released raw sewage.
A water plant was flooded in High Ridge, south of St. Louis. Tanker trucks brought in water, but customers were urged to conserve.
Enbridge Inc.'s Ozark pipeline remained shut down for the third straight day. The pipeline transports oil from Oklahoma to an Illinois refinery near St. Louis. Company spokesman Michael Barnes said a section of the pipeline runs along the bottom of the Mississippi River.
The southwest Missouri tourist destination of Branson had residents of about 150 duplexes and homes evacuate Wednesday due to flooding from a manmade lake.
It appeared the 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 Illinois, where seven of the flooding deaths occurred, the search for two missing 18-year-olds resumed Thursday with dive crews surveying a flooded lake where one of the teen’s cellphone was tracked. Gov. Bruce Rauner is scheduled to return early from a vacation outside the U.S. to visit flood-damaged areas. Twelve counties in the state have been declared disaster areas.
Residents in southwest Illinois expect to have a clearer picture of their fate by Sunday, when the National Weather Service charts indicate the crest will occur in Chester.
Menard Correctional Center is in Chester and staff have transferred some inmates to other Illinois Department of Corrections facilities, and moved others to alternate housing areas inside the prison, in anticipation of minor flooding.
Some prisoners were helping to fill more than 60,000 sandbags for flood control, with the help of local farmers and other volunteers, to protect generators and buildings at Menard as well as outside the prison, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Nicole Wilson said.
Associated Press, Chicago Tribune staff and freelancer Isaac Smith contributed