For New Year’s Eve, Jim Hanning, 42, pumped water out of his basement.
Tables and chairs sat tangled on the porch of his rental house, where a green water mark stained the white vinyl siding about 6 feet above the ground.
That’s where the floodwaters reached. But as Hanning sat in a white Ford pickup that he borrowed from his boss and puffed a BlackStone cherry cigarillo Thursday morning, he smiled.
“It’s just material things,” said Hanning, as work crews hummed down the muddy roads in this community of 10,000 residents on the Bourbeuse River about 50 miles west of St. Louis. “You can cry or laugh about it. That’s all you can do.”
Across the lower Great Plains, historic winter flooding — brought on by last weekend’s warm-weather storms — has killed at least 20 people in Missouri, Illinois and Oklahoma and inundated hundreds of homes and business in river towns like Union.
This is only the beginning of a rare winter flood fight that will last for weeks. As floodwaters drain into the Mississippi, the swollen river could threaten farms and communities stretching hundreds of miles from Missouri to Louisiana before dumping into the Gulf of Mexico.
“It’s extremely unusual — the first time in 25-plus years that I’ve worked here that we’ve ever seen anything like this in December,” said Jim Pogue, spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Memphis district.
It’s extremely unusual -- the first time in 25-plus years that I’ve worked here that we’ve ever seen anything like this in December.
Army Corps personnel were already patrolling the levees along the Mississippi River, which is projected to surge beyond its record height in southeastern Missouri by 3 1/2 feet when the flood crests in Cape Girardeau on Sunday morning.
Other parts of the Mississippi south of St. Louis are not expected to set records, but Pogue said, “This is actually shaping up to be probably the fourth-highest flood on record in this area,” exceeded only by the deluges of 1927, 1937 and 2011.
The flood is then projected to crest in lower Louisiana in mid- to late January.
For now, the worst of the flooding has come in eastern Missouri, where tributaries like the Bourbeuse and the Meramec have risen to heights not seen west of St. Louis in recent history.
The rivers buried whole blocks of some river communities, leaving nothing but neat rows of buildings poking out of the brown water like calculator buttons.
Part of the Mississippi River has been shut to river traffic near St. Louis, and regional commuters have been delayed for hours after floodwaters closed portions of Interstates 44 and 55.
Some of the worst flooding happened in Union, where the Bourbeuse River crested about half a foot above its 1982 record on Tuesday. Eventually the waters receded, allowing the cleanup to begin.
On New Year’s Eve morning in Union, patrons were buzzing at the White Rose Cafe downtown, where the TV was set to news coverage of the disaster. Almost everyone knows someone who’s been affected.
The house had been home to six people: Hanning and his wife, Kim, 48; their son, Kyle, 21, and his girlfriend; and two grandchildren.
When the water first started to rise Monday morning, it moved quickly to their frontyard and headed for the steps. As it continued to surge more rapidly than expected, they decided to evacuate.
Kim tossed as much as she could into the family sedan. Her husband hurried about inside and stacked what he could on tables.
After the family fled, they watched from a safe distance as the water continued to rise.
They found lodging at a motel and waited. Jim donned camouflage waders and approached as close to the house as he could to inspect the damage. The water almost topped the roof of the shed in the backyard.
Kim saw their house on the TV news. Each day, she has come back as close as possible to her home, watched the water and cried.
She was worried most about her cat, Casper, who had been trapped inside.
But the family’s luck soon turned for the better. When Jim returned to the house Wednesday, he found Casper.
“We were just trying to help them out and get them out of the hotel and into a home,” said Cooper, who has been in contact with the family regularly since the flood struck. He said the Hannings can stay at the new place for as long as they need.
Back on Rock Road, a pump made a spraying sound as a blue hose belched water out into the soggy, muddy grass outside the Hannings’ house.
Jim was waiting for the city to inspect his property before he starts cleaning up inside. But he guesses almost 4 feet of water crept inside — higher than the tabletops where he’d placed the things he hoped to keep dry.
He tallied the damage in his head: Christmas presents, furniture, clothes, electronics. About 250 pounds of venison from a successful deer hunting season. Most of the family pictures.
After he spent several hours at the house Thursday morning, Kim arrived about noon. She said she saved Jim’s Christmas gift to her, an Android Nextbook Flexx tablet.
Her gifts to him — some hunting accessories — might be lost. But at least the family was safe.
A friend stopped by Thursday to share some New Year’s Eve greetings. Krista Jung, 55, lives about a mile away and watched the flood submerge the Hannings’ house.
Her house was OK, so she decided to give back. She dropped off a $50 Wal-Mart gift card for the Hannings.
“I did it just because I’m sure they lost everything,” she said. “And you can get anything at Wal-Mart.”
This flood isn’t the Hannings’ first. During massive flooding in 1993, the Hannings were displaced from their home in High Ridge, Mo.
“I never want to go through this again,” Kim said.
The family had moved around since then and settled on this property in Union about seven years ago, close to the foundation company where Jim worked. A neck injury has kept him from working the last several months.
Next week, the first of the new year, should be eventful: The family will know by Monday if the house will be demolished.
Next Tuesday, Jim Hanning said, he’ll meet with the doctor to learn whether he can work again.
Asked about his New Year’s Eve plans, he said the family would keep it simple. No drinking champagne. No watching the ball drop.
They’re just happy to be together.
Special correspondent Witthaus reported from Union and Times staff writer Pearce from Los Angeles.