UPDATED at 10:15 a.m. Wednesday with shutdown extending 24 miles.
FENTON • Floodwaters from the Meramec River forced the shutdown of all lanes of Interstate 44 for a 24-mile stretch early Wednesday. The closure could last through Friday.
Ten miles of the interstate were closed at about 1:15 a.m. Wednesday between Bowles Avenue in Fenton to Highway 109 in Eureka. Then, before 9 a.m., the shutdown doubled in size, to 20 miles — extending all the way from Bowles to Highway 100 in Gray Summit. Less than an hour later, it was extended east to Interstate 270.
About 100,000 vehicles a day travel Interstate 44 near Highway 141.
The closure of Interstate 44 threw the morning commute, particularly for eastbound traffic, into confusion. The detours were taking vehicles miles off track, with huge backups. Many truckers were stranded in Eureka. They were frustrated they couldn't find a good detour out, and didn't know if their rigs would have bridge clearance and be approved on the smaller roads.
Interstate 44 west of Highway 141 hasn't been underwater since 1982, when about two feet of water covered the interstate. This time, predictions show there could be four to five feet of water covering I-44 later Wednesday and into Thursday.
Water had crept onto the shoulders by about midnight Tuesday and was moving faster than Missouri Department of Transportation officials expected. Water was covering all lanes an hour later, and the interstate was shut down. By 6 a.m., there was about a foot of water on the interstate, according to Shaunda White, a spokeswoman for MoDOT.
White said she expects the length of the closure to increase as the day goes along.
Officials suggest this detour for now:
• If you’re westbound, take Missouri Highway 100 (Manchester Road) to Gray Summit, and get on I-44 there.
• If you’re eastbound on I-44, take Highway 30 in St. Clair, then head south on Highway 141 to Interstate 55, then go north on I-55 up to Interstate 270.
I-44 had also been closed west of Rolla, also causing a long detour, but MoDOT reopened that section of interstate Wednesday morning.
For all highway closures, go to the Missouri Department of Transportation map here.
The closure was making the morning commute a mess Wednesday. The problem was compounded because Highway 30 east of Highway 141 was closed at about 5 a.m. Missouri highway officials on Tuesday closed Highway 109 just north of I-44, near Eureka High School, further snarling commuter traffic.
Some local traffic was being allowed on Interstate 44 at the Eureka exit near Six Flags.
"Those detour routes are going to be very congested, so people need to allow plenty of time," said Karen Yeomans, area engineer for southwest St. Louis County. "It's going to be double, triple (commute time) depending on where somewhere is coming from."
Water should be off Interstate 44 by Friday, if predictions hold true, Yeomans said.
The shutdown west of Rolla had caused headaches for truckers and some of the towns on their detour. Miles of truckers detoured through rural towns not equipped to handle overflow of tractor-trailers. In Licking, Mo., a town of 3,000 people with one stoplight, lifelong resident Deanna Sparks said state troopers were manually directing traffic at the stoplight.
"It was crazy," she said. "All you could see for miles and miles was traffic. You divert all this traffic from an interstate to a two-lane highway ... and stopping in Licking and waiting for a light."
At Love's Travel Stop in Rolla, employees said many of the truckers took it in stride, calling their dispatchers to get their new route. But others were concerned they wouldn't have enough time to complete their routes. They were driving on hilly sections, on roads with no shoulders and limited passing lanes, and the constant stopping left the smell of truck brakes hanging in the air for much of the day Tuesday.
On Wednesday morning, one of the truckers stranded at Eureka, Shaan Asadullah, was particularly frustrated. He said he had left Oklahoma City on Tuesday, heading to Metro East with a load of frozen food. He got as far as the exit near St. Robert, Mo., but had to stay the night there because flooding had shut the interstate. On Wednesday morning, he was able to continue his trip east, but only made it about an hour before getting stranded in Eureka with the new closures.
Asadullah said no one could figure how to detour out of there. The truckers weren't sure if they had bridge clearance on some of the smaller roads.
"When we're stuck here, we're not getting paid," he said, because he is paid by the mile. "I should be back on my way back to Oklahoma by now."
An endless stream of motorists wandered into the QuikTrip at the Eureka exit asking for directions. The staff seemed a bit overwhelmed by the crush of people. They drew maps on pieces of paper and handed them out to those seeking directions. In short, they were told they had to go west to eventually go east. Manchester Road was essentially a parking lot in both directions because that was the route to circumvent Valley Park.
Steve Giegerich of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.