By Kevin Murphy and Mary Wisniewski
Missouri residents struggled through a fourth straight day of storms on Tuesday, fighting rising floodwaters that inundated homes, forced evacuations and closed highways and even part of the Mississippi River.
A week of chaotic weather continued throughout the United States as a storm system that spawned deadly tornadoes in the Midwest and Southwest pushed north. More than 40 people have died of weather-related causes during the Christmas holidays in the past week.
Missouri has been pounded by downpours since Saturday, and forecasters warned that its major rivers were still days away from cresting at record levels.
At the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, about 20 miles (32 km) north of St. Louis, residents of the small cities of West Alton and Arnold were told to evacuate on Tuesday due to rising waters.
“Access to and from town will be lost in a matter of hours,” the local Rivers Pointe Fire District said in an alert.
Video taken from local news helicopters showed homes in West Alton with water almost at roof level.
There was also severe flooding near the courses of the Missouri, Meramec and Bourbeuse rivers in the town of Union, about 50 miles (80 km) west of St. Louis, where footage showed several shops, a McDonald’s restaurant and a gas station partly submerged.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon called out the National Guard to provide security in evacuated areas and direct traffic away from closed roads.
“These citizen soldiers will provide much-needed support to state and local first responders, many of whom have spent the last several days working around the clock responding to record rainfall and flooding,” Nixon said in a statement.
The floods forced the closure of hundreds of roads across Missouri, including in St. Louis and Interstate 44 near Rolla, a small city about 110 miles (180 km) southwest of St. Louis, officials said.
Three new flood-related deaths were discovered on Tuesday, the governor told a news conference, raising the death toll in the state since the storms began over the weekend to 13.
Noting that a dozen of those deaths had been caused by vehicles being swept from flooded roads, Nixon reiterated that motorists should never drive around barricades or into standing water.
Some inmates were moved out of the Menard Correctional Center, a maximum security prison on the banks of the Mississippi, in Illinois, and sandbags and drinking water were prepared in anticipation of flooding in lower level cell blocks, Illinois officials said in a statement.
MISSISSIPPI TO CREST ON FRIDAY
The U.S. Coast Guard had to close a five-mile (8 km) stretch of the Mississippi River near St. Louis to all vessel traffic because rising river levels created hazardous conditions.
The National Weather Service predicted the Mississippi River at the Chester, Illinois, river gauge about 60 miles (100 km) south of St. Louis would crest at 49.7 feet (15.1 meters) on Friday – matching the 1993 record.
Local officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were working to fortify a levee in the area to protect homes and businesses, Nixon’s office said.
On Saturday, the Mississippi is expected to crest at Thebes, Illinois, just south of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, at 47.5 feet (14.5 meters) – nearly two feet above the record, officials said.
Other rivers are also expected to reach new highs, with the Meramec forecast to crest at Valley Park, Missouri, at a record 42 feet (12.8 meters).
Illinois issued a disaster proclamation for seven counties with flooding or potential flooding after being drenched with seven inches of rain between Dec. 23-28.
Elsewhere in the U.S. midsection, parts of eastern Oklahoma and Arkansas, were under flood warnings and flood watches on Tuesday. Up to a foot (30 cm) of snow was forecast for Iowa and the Great Lakes region, the National Weather Service said.
The severe weather has stranded tens of thousands of travelers during one of the busiest travel periods of the year. As of 4:30 p.m. EST (2130 GMT) on Tuesday, more than 1,280 flights had been canceled in the United States and about 4,400 were delayed. About 2,900 flights were canceled on Monday, according to FlightAware.com.
Adding to the misery, the U.S. Geological Survey reported that two mild earthquakes – 4.1 and 3.4 magnitude – rattled central Oklahoma early on Tuesday, causing power outages in an area already hit by winter storms.
In an apparent storm-related incident in Oklahoma, singer Craig Strickland, 29, of the country-rock band Backroad Anthem went missing while duck hunting in a boat in bad weather with a friend. The friend’s body was found in a lake after their boat capsized, officials said.
(Additional reporting by Victoria Cavaliere in Los Angeles, Heide Brandes in Oklahoma City, and Euan Roche in Toronto; Writing by Daniel Wallis and Fiona Ortiz; Editing by Bill Trott and Jonathan Oatis)