NEW: Death toll in Missouri rises to 14 with recovery of a motorist's body
Missouri will have "major to historic river flooding" through early next week
12.1 million people in U.S. are under flood warnings
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Even if it doesn’t rain another drop in Missouri, Kathy Wunderlich’s home in West Alton may still get flooded.
Recent deluges have engulfed towns, homes, fields and roads in deadly floodwater. Though the storms are gone, the rivers have kept rising from Texas to Illinois.
In West Alton, near St. Louis, runoff pushed the Mississippi River over the levees on Tuesday, and Wunderlich was headed for higher ground with her belongings in tow.
Wednesday morning, aerial cameras captured parts of the greater St. Louis area under water. A shopping area was half submerged, a sign for a Jimmy John’s sandwich shop at the top of a building still visible above the water line.
“We emptied out our basement of anything important, which is strictly storage anyway. We cleaned out the house of clothes. Things that can’t be replaced. Important pieces of furniture,” Wunderlich told CNN affiliate KMOV.
A visibly exhausted James Harris told KMOV that if his house floods, he’s not moving back. “It wears you out,” he said. “This is the last time I’m going to do this.”
Early Wednesday morning, rescuers reached Jean Scott’s trailer in the tiny town of Pacific, Missouri. Water was approaching her door, she said.
“They came and got us and put us in a raft and took us across the railroad tracks,” Scott said.
The rescuers took her to a nursing home where “everybody is real friendly,” she said.
But she worries that her home is devastated. No one has given her an update. She’s also concerned about her neighbors.
“I really feel for the people. I really do. My heart goes out to them,” she said, adding that she has no patience for people who take risks.
“Some of these people on the highway trying to drive through this stuff – they’re very stupid,” she said.
400 gauges over flood stage
Wunderlich and Scott are among 12.1 million people nationwide living in areas where there are flood warnings, the National Weather Service said in a 3 p.m. Wednesday statement. The figure dropped from 17 million as flood warnings were canceled in parts of Missouri and Illinois.
A 24-mile stretch of I-44 is closed from Interstate 270 in St. Louis County to the Highway 100 exit in Gray Summit in Franklin County, authorities said. Many people are in hotels and all are encouraged to stay off the roads.
Throughout the country’s midsection about 400 river gauges are over flood stage, with around 45 showing major flooding, the National Weather Service said.
Many of those are in or around St. Louis. Some rivers and streams have already crested, and some haven’t yet, like the Mississippi. It is expected to reach its peak late Wednesday or early Thursday in Missouri along with other area streams.
Missouri will still have “major to historic river flooding through early next week,” the National Weather Service’s St. Louis office said. “Record crests expected on area rivers the next several days.”
State of emergency
“We’ve never seen water this high,” Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon told CNN’s “New Day.” “The Meramec River is going to be 4 feet over its historic level.”
At its peak, the Mississippi should be at its highest level ever, Nixon said, beating the highest level of the great flood of 1993.
“That’s why we’ve got a state of emergency,” he said. But it is expected to drain off rapidly, so he is hopeful the cleanup phase will begin soon.
The town of Union is already moving into cleanup mode.
“The river crested (there) yesterday,” said emergency manager Russell Ross. Floodwater has receded from a major highway there, but it is yet to be reopened, because it needs to be checked over.
Water creeping up the sandbags
Nixon has activated the National Guard to aid first responders and provide security in evacuated areas like Valley Park. Residents have volunteered by the dozens to fill sandbags and then pass them hand to hand to be transported or laid in place.
The Mississippi River is already creeping up the sandbags laid out to protect the town of Alton, Illinois, which lies across the river from West Alton, Missouri.
Downstream, in Illinois, a prison has been partially evacuated. Menard Correctional Center is on the banks of the Mississippi, and the staff anticipates minor flooding in some of its cells when the river crests.
The situation is also looking desperate in Missouri’s Ozarks, according to the mayor of Rockaway Beach.
“It is devastating,” Don Smith said on CNN. “We are begging for help.”
There are trucks in town that are completely underwater and businesses on the shore of a lake are in danger, he said. “I don’t even know how we’re going to deal with the cleanup process,” he said. “There are condo units that are completely underwater.”
Evacuations have been going smoothly, he said. But he was very concerned the flooding will get worse and the town doesn’t have the capacity to protect itself.
In Louisiana, the governor declared a state of emergency in advance of floodwaters coming later in the week.