The Red Cross shelter, assembled in the basement of a Granite City church, offered relief from the rain above but not from the saturated ground below.
Puddles appeared like blisters — near a registration table, beside a flat-screen TV, next to a woman working a crossword. They percolated up through the red and white linoleum floor, providing a small yet revealing display of the severity of the deluge that has swept across the St. Louis region in recent days.
“We have been here since last night,” said Mario Lewis, 27, speaking over the din of wet-dry vacuums drawing in the water. “Earlier our landlady ... said, ‘It will probably be a few more days.’”
Other demonstrations of the floodwater’s impact were far less subtle: volunteers filling thousands of sandbags, last-minute evacuations, people left stranded, the closure of multiple highways and more than a dozen drownings.
But on Monday, the historic downpour slowed to a light drizzle in downtown St. Louis. The forecast for the remainder of the week was absent rain, though not snow — predicted for Wednesday.
The shift marked the beginning of another phase: bracing for a surge in river levels, accompanied by days of anxiety for what damage will be revealed when the water recedes.
Gov. Jay Nixon on Monday warned residents not to become complacent, noting how moments of carelessness had cost several lives.
Authorities were still searching for three additional people believed dead after their vehicles were swept away by surging floodwater, likely bringing the death toll in Missouri to at least 13.
“The threat is clearly not over,” Nixon said. “I would ask folks not to lose their focus.”
Record risings and road closures
The region’s rivers were forecast to swell to record heights, or levels just below them, as the week continues, with the Mississippi River in St. Louis and Alton projected to rise within 3 or 4 feet of the 1993 flood.
On the Meramec River near Arnold, the water could reach the record 45.3-foot crest, possibly hitting 45.1 by New Year’s Eve.
Downriver, the Mississippi may surpass the 1993 record of 49.74 feet at Chester, Ill., on Friday, surging within inches of the top of the levee that protects Ste. Genevieve, Mo.
Illinois officials prepared for the worst at the 3,000-plus inmate state prison in Chester, as they mulled plans to bring in hundreds of portable toilets should the surge affect the maximum-security facility’s water service.
Across Missouri, about 285 roads were closed Monday, including several in the St. Louis area, mostly in St. Charles and Lincoln counties, according to the Missouri Department of Transportation. Southbound lanes of Highway 141 at Interstate 44 were closed Monday evening, and officials were expecting the northbound ones to close, too, possibly through the weekend.
MoDOT engineers were bracing for the Meramec River to engulf Interstate 44 west of Highway 141 on Tuesday or Wednesday, prompting its closure as well — something that hasn’t happened since 1982.
As much as a foot of water is predicted on that portion of interstate, said Mark Croarkin, MoDOT’s maintenance engineer for the St. Louis district.
“When you start looking at detour routes, there really aren’t any good ones,” Croarkin said.
Nearby Highway 30 (Gravois Road) could also go underwater.
Build a dam or pack up
In St. Louis, Mayor Francis Slay declared a weather emergency, reporting that as of Monday afternoon the city had responded to 61 traffic accidents and 24 incidents of people stranded by high water.
The city closed Riverview Boulevard between Hall Street and Interstate 270 because of flooding, and to help control the surging waters, shut down Alabama Avenue at River Des Peres.
Slay asked for volunteers to help fill 20,000 sandbags, requesting they wear boots and gloves and report to the River Des Peres Park parking lot next to Fultz Baseball Field (east of Gravois Road) at 7 a.m. Tuesday.
Meanwhile, residents at the New Town development in northern St. Charles worked to fill about 1,000 sandbags to protect about a dozen homes threatened by floodwater from a large lake.
“It’s getting very close to the basements of those homes; I think a little did get into some basements,” said Bruce Evans, acting director of administration for St. Charles.
A string of lakes and canals that takes rainwater runoff was among the selling points for the new-urbanism development. “It still works that way,” Evans said. “This just overwhelmed it. It’s too much rain.”
But elsewhere, some business owners packed up their merchandise, rather than entrust it to the makeshift barriers.
In downtown Kimmswick, a river town in Jefferson County, Nikki Hickman had begun boxing up the handmade gifts from her store, Serendipity, on Mill Street. Friends had arrived with pickups to help her haul the items home.
“If the sandbags hold, everything’s golden,” she said. “Everything is high and dry. But there is no floodgate, there’s sandbags.”
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger announced Monday that the county’s Port Authority had made available $500,000 in interest-free loans to damaged businesses — a move that could provide relief for people such as Walter Wolfner, owner of the Riverside Golf Club in Fenton.
On Monday, Wolfner picked up an empty Budweiser Select can from a parking lot nearly covered by the Meramec. Wolfner and his workers had moved all the carts and equipment out of the clubhouse, as they prepared for it to be hit by a 5-foot wall of water.
The public golf course hadn’t flooded since 1982, and Wolfner believed it would take months to rebuild the clubhouse.
“I can’t help it,” he said. “I’m still picking up garbage ... I never thought we’d ever see anything like this.”
Beauty and terror
Nearby, Erin Spector of Manchester stood on the bank of the swollen Meramec with her 6-year-old daughter Paige, transfixed by the tree stumps and other debris churning in the water.
“Just seeing the enormity of it, it’s beautiful and terrible at the same time,” Spector said.
In the basement of the Nameoki United Methodist Church, water oozing up through the floor, Connie McGiffin seemed more filled with dread than awe.
McGiffin was one of dozens of residents at the shelter from two Pontoon Beach mobile home parks, evacuated after water reached an electrical grid, they said.
In the hurry to get to safety, she left behind a dog and three cats.
“The dog is in a cage,” she said.
McGiffin and her daughter, Jennifer Grisham, said they begged the local animal control office and the Humane Society for help, but no one would go to retrieve the animals.
“There’s nowhere to take them,” McGiffin said. “The shelters won’t take them.”
On Monday, Grisham took a bus back to the park to check on the pets, but the road in was submerged, the tide approaching the roofs of neighbors’ homes.
McGiffin said she had heard it would be several days until she could get back home. For the moment, she focused on a crossword puzzle to keep her mind off what might await her when she returned.
Blythe Bernhard, Leah Thorsen, Kurt Erickson, Tim O’Neil and Mark Schlinkmann, all of the Post-Dispatch, contributed to this report.