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UPDATED at 5:15 a.m. Wednesday with I-44 shutdown.

Widespread flooding has shut down dozens of businesses, pushed sewage into the Meramec River, forced evacuations from hundreds of homes and closed a section of Interstate 44 early Wednesday.

It has been more than 20 years since such extensive flooding has hit the St. Louis region. And while the record downpours over the weekend and Monday have subsided, area rivers continued rising Tuesday, bringing with it anxiety of more damage.

The Mississippi River was expected to crest Thursday in downtown St. Louis at 43.7 feet, nearly 14 feet over flood stage. That would be the second highest crest on record, nudging aside the April 1973 flood of 43.2 feet. The forecast crest still would be about 6 feet lower than the record from Aug. 1, 1993.

The notoriously fast-rising Meramec was causing the most havoc, advancing toward I-44 and against the new levee system at Valley Park, which was built after a record flood there in December 1982. The Meramec jumped 27 feet from Saturday to late Tuesday, when it was at 35 feet and heading toward a crest Thursday of 43 feet — more than 3 feet over the record. It will test the top of the levee.

The Meramec also threatened several other records along its lower reaches.

Valley Park Mayor Mike Pennise said he recommended that people living near the levee move out and promised to order a mandatory evacuation when the river reaches 40 feet. He said the levee protects to 44 feet, and flood gates to 42.5 feet, but crews can top the thick gates with sandbags if necessary.

“The engineers still like the integrity of the system,” he said. “We’re optimistic, but people are getting themselves ready. They’d rather lose a couch than a life.”

The Meramec overwhelmed a sewer-treatment plant at Fenton on Monday night, sending untreated sewage into the river. Missouri highway officials on Tuesday closed Highway 109 just north of I-44, near Eureka High School, further snarling commuter traffic.

In Pacific, volunteers filled sandbags and stacked them along points of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad grade, which doubles as a levee protecting the town. “It was an amazing show of support,” said Pacific Mayor Jeffrey Palmore, who estimated that 300 homes and businesses had been flooded.

Just downstream at Eureka, where the crest forecast for late Wednesday would beat the 1982 record by 3 feet, officials asked sandbaggers to gather at 8 a.m. Wednesday at Blevens Elementary School.

The Big River, a tributary of the Meramec, was forecast to crest Wednesday within 3 feet of a record that has held since 1915.

On Tuesday night, sandbaggers worked to protect the Water District 2 treatment plant near High Ridge that serves 5,500 customers there and in Fenton and House Springs.

Inmates from state prisons in Bonne Terre and Pacific joined National Guard soldiers and volunteers to protect the plant’s electric service unit, but their first challenge was supply. Water Board president Steve Conley grumbled: “We got a little issue here. We got no sand.”

The assembly cheered when three orange-painted dump trucks from St. Louis arrived with pre-filled sandbags. The crew then formed a human chain to build a 4-foot-high wall.

Rivers spill over

An aerial view of the region on midday Tuesday showed just how extensive the havoc of the early winter rains of 8 or more inches across wide parts of Missouri and Illinois.

The mighty Mississippi rose from its banks, lapping at the Gateway Arch stairs as tourists lined up for rides to the top and construction crews worked on a $380 million renovation of the riverfront park grounds. The high, churning water closed a portion of the river to barge traffic.

Views by helicopter were most dramatic over Franklin County, where Presiding Commissioner John Griesheimer called the flooding “unprecedented for our history.”

“The majority of our residents, one way or another, are going to be impacted by this,” Griesheimer said.

He said the Bourbeuse, Meramec and Missouri rivers were high and smaller creeks and rivers were bloated. Dozens of roadways were closed, including U.S. Highway 50 and Highway 47 in Union.

In Union, the Bourbeuse closed off access to blocks of businesses along the busy stretch of Highway 50, including McDonald’s and Jack in the Box restaurants, a QuikTrip, a Super 8 motel, and the Dickey Bub Farm and Home store. Residents in Union and nearby Pacific were trapped in their homes as floodwater covered yards and driveways. In several cases, homes appeared to sprout from large lakes of floodwater.

Rescue crews have been active, said Abe Cook, emergency management director for Franklin County. The Bourbeuse at Union was cresting Wednesday half a foot above the former record, set in December 1982.

He called the crest “a positive. We are waiting for the river to go down a bit so we can open up (Highway) 50.”

Franklin County officials also are keeping an eye on the Highway 47 bridge in Washington over the Missouri River. Washington Mayor Sandy Lucy said the river topped levees upstream and flooded farmland, which prevent it from reaching the highway approach across from Washington.

“I am optimistic that it will remain open,” she said.

‘A lost cause’

Fenton Mayor Michael D. Polizzi said his community wanted to fill sandbags and protect homes that had never flooded before. He said officials have plenty of sandbags and could get the volunteers, but had trouble finding sand. Fenton doesn’t store its own sand and called around to various suppliers, who were out, the mayor said.

“All those (homes) that are in the flood plain and those who have flood insurance are probably going to be on their own,” Polizzi said. “We just don’t have time to protect everyone. It’s just too fast.”

In the Meramec Meadows subdivision, Nancy Wittroc also was frustrated by a lack of sandbags. Her family moved furniture up from their finished basement as she spoke to a local firefighter in her driveway. “I can come up with a couple of trucks if you can find a place to get them,” Wittroc said.

In Old Town Fenton, Jerry Casteel found enough sandbags to surround his two-bedroom home on Gravois Road at Grave Street. Water backing up Fenton Creek behind his backyard reached the sandbags near his back door by Tuesday night. Friends helped him move a trailer filled with belongings.

“It looks like it’s going to be a lost cause, but what can you do?” Casteel said. “You got to try.”

At the confluence of the Meramec and Mississippi rivers, Arnold residents prepared for evacuations. Police Capt. Robert Ruckman recommended residents leave flooded and flood-prone areas. Evacuations will become mandatory once electric and gas services are disconnected at flooded homes, he said.

Ruckman said First Baptist Church of Arnold, 2012 Missouri State Road, opened as an emergency shelter.

By late Tuesday, Ameren Missouri had shut off power to about 500 customers in Arnold and 600 in Pacific at the request of local officials because of flooding, a spokeswoman said.

‘Within hours of losing the town’

In St. Charles County, authorities on Tuesday directed West Alton residents to immediately evacuate as climbing water threatened the roads out of town.

“This is the final step,” said Richard Pender, chief of the Rivers Pointe Fire Protection District. “We’re within hours of losing the town. Get what you have. It’s time to leave.”

The Mississippi topped the Consolidated North County Levee Tuesday afternoon, and workers monitored the exit routes of Highway 67 and Highway 94 into the night.

Pender said the evacuation was not mandatory, but about 75 percent of the town’s 525 residents had left by sundown. He noted that about 25 percent of the residents live in homes that were raised after the 1993 flood.

Resident Samantha Bridges and her 2-year-old son, Axel, loaded her belongings into a rental truck on Richard Road.

“We’re not taking any chances,” said Bridges’ father, Jack Hartley, who lives across the river, in Illinois. “We’re glad she’s getting out.”

The southbound lane of Highway 67 out of Alton already was covered with water. David Itayem, manager of the Pit Stop service station at Highway 67 and Highway 94, shut down the pumps at midday Tuesday. Workers dismantled them for removal to high ground.

“They told us everybody needs to get out — now,” Itayem said.

The Argosy Casino in Alton closed Monday night and isn’t expected to open again until Jan. 2.

Alton Mayor Brant Walker said the prognosis for the city’s downtown is grim.

“We believe that even with our best efforts of sandbagging and pumping, it will be impossible to keep the water out of the basements in the downtown business district,” he said in a prepared statement.

A few miles upriver, workers built a 600-foot-long berm along Portage Road to protect access to the riverside town of Portage des Sioux.

The Machens family, fifth-generation farmers in the area, began emptying their nine grain silos Sunday night — soybeans first, then corn — 100,000 total bushels. The task required the commissioning of 100 trucks, each hauling 1,000 bushels.

Truck No. 92 pulled into the bay late Tuesday afternoon.

Stephen Deere, Steve Giegerich, Mark Schlinkmann and Jacob Barker, all of the Post-Dispatch, contributed to this report.

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Tim O'Neil is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch