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World & Nation

Flooding threatens hundreds in Midwest, sewage flowing into rivers

Flooding in Illinois

A mailbox stands in floodwaters in Pontoon Beach, Ill. 

(Chris Lee )

A furious winter flood shut down portions of two interstates here Tuesday, threatened hundreds of homes and caused sewage to flow unfiltered into waterways.

Torrential rains over the past several days pushed already swollen rivers and streams to virtually unheard-of heights in parts of Missouri and Illinois. The Mississippi River is expected to crest at record levels in some areas south of St. Louis later this week.

At least 18 deaths in Missouri and Illinois are blamed on flooding, mostly involving vehicles that drove onto swamped roadways.

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The river on Tuesday spilled over the top of the levee at West Alton, Mo., about 20 miles north of St. Louis. Mayor William Richter ordered any of the town’s approximate 520 residents who had not already evacuated to get out of harm’s way.

Interstate 44 was closed near the central Missouri town of Rolla, and a section of Interstate 70 was shut down in southern Illinois. Hundreds of smaller roads and highways were also closed across the two states, and flood warnings were in effect.

In St. Louis, more than 100 volunteers turned out in blustery, cold conditions to fill sandbags where a flooded waterway threatened hundreds of homes.

The River Des Peres is a man-made storm sewer channel that flows through south St. Louis into the Mississippi River, a few miles south of the Anheuser-Busch brewery. The channel is deep enough that flooding isn’t a concern under normal conditions.

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But there is nothing normal about this December flood.

The Mississippi River is expected to reach nearly 15 feet above flood stage on Thursday at St. Louis, which would be the second-worst flood on record, behind only the devastating 1993 flood.

Maureen Hooch, 57, volunteered to fill sandbags in the heat of that July 1993 flood. She was back at it Tuesday in St. Louis.

“The last time I was out here it was 1,000 degrees,” Hooch recalled. “They had a bus you could get on to cool off. I prefer the cold. When you work, you warm up.”

Alderman Larry Arnowitz said up to 500 homes could be threatened if the River Des Peres rises much more than projected. He was confident that with no rain in the forecast for the next several days — and with the help of the thousands of sandbags — everything would be OK.

But Lisa Muxo, 45, said her basement was already taking on water.

Muxo had brought her teenage son and three of his friends to help sandbag. “These are our neighbors, our friends,” she said. “We need to help each other.”

The high water was blamed for the shutdown of a wastewater treatment plant on Monday just south of St. Louis, causing sewage to go directly into nearby rivers and streams. 

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One of the two wastewater plants in Springfield, Mo., also failed, allowing partially treated sewage to flow into a river.

In central and southern Illinois, flood warnings were in effect a day after a winter storm brought sleet and icy rain. Major flooding was occurring along the Kankakee, Illinois, Sangamon and Vermilion rivers.

An Illinois prison with nearly 3,700 inmates was preparing for possible flooding from the Mississippi River on Tuesday. Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman Nicole Wilson said employees and emergency work crews at the Menard Correctional Center near Chester were filling sandbags and “working around the clock.”

The maximum security prison was on lockdown, and visits had been suspended. Officials  anticipated having to bring in hundreds of portable toilets in case the prison’s water service was shut down.

Meanwhile, heavy rain continued in parts of the South, particularly Georgia and eastern Alabama, where some areas have seen more than 14 inches of rain since Dec. 21.

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