ST. LOUIS — City crews on Thursday moved massive sandbags in place along the River Des Peres in south St. Louis, close to where it meets the Mississippi River. They were scrambling to get ahead of rising floodwater, just days before the Mississippi is expected to reach a near-historic crest.
One glance at the River Des Peres early Thursday explained the unease felt by nearby residents.
On one side of the river, the water was nearly even with Germania Street; on the other, the water appeared even higher than River City Boulevard — restrained only by an increasingly thin lip of a small berm.
Street Department workers said the sandbags were needed in places to match the rise of the river.
“We’re just trying to keep up with the levels,” said Will Young, a labor supervisor for the Street Department.
“This is prep for 46 (feet),” he explained, describing the line of sandbags going into position Thursday, and the current level of the expected crest. The National Weather Service expects the Mississippi River to reach that level on Tuesday — just 3.6 feet below the record set in 1993.
Young said the city was prepared to do additional sandbagging work as needed.
The rising water makes for a nerve-racking ordeal for those who have the threatening river nearly at their doorstep.
“You just worry every day. You pray it will work,” said Dianne Chouinard, standing in front of the River City Boulevard home where she has lived since 1977. “I just don’t want to get a knock at the door at 3 o’clock in the morning to say, ‘The levee’s not going to hold and you need to evacuate.’”
She said a surveyor told her Wednesday that her front porch sits at 42 feet — well below the developing crest. For people like her, there’s no margin for error, and no Plan B that’s anything but painful.
“We haven’t done any packing or anything. We’re staying put. If it happens, it happens — and we lose everything,” she said.
Like many other residents at risk around the region, Chouinard said the only time she has faced similar danger was in 1993. She retrieved a photograph from that historic flood, showing her then-10-year-old son, Matthew, dwarfed by a mound of material that formed an emergency levee much higher than the sandbag barrier taking shape Thursday.
That 1993 levee held, but Chouinard said the family was still forced out of their home for three months, with their finished basement ruined by taking on 8 inches of backup sewage after pumps were shut down in the area.
Chouinard said that at least she had flood insurance at that time, although it was still a hassle to get the provider to handle some of the costs. But she never thought the river would come as high again, so the policy was ended once it was no longer required.
“We kept it until the house was paid for and then we canceled it,” she said.
More levees overtopped
In updated flood warnings issued Thursday afternoon for northeastern St. Charles County, the weather service said “emergency management reported levees being overtopped along the Mississippi River. This will cause flooding of lower elevations over the next several days.”
“Some locations that will experience flooding” include West Alton, Portage des Sioux and Orchard Farm, according to the agency.
Other levees — primarily in agricultural areas — have also been overtopped in recent weeks during the drawn-out flood event. Even before major rivers in the area began their latest rise, the St. Louis District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said earlier this month that more than a dozen local levees had already been overtopped, and sometimes breached, by flooding this spring.
Pritzker deploys Guard
The high water has produced widespread responses along both sides of the Mississippi.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Thursday deployed 200 members of the Illinois National Guard to respond along the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, calling the flooding a “grave” and “urgent” situation. Another 200 Illinois National Guard members are on standby, the governor said.
Illinois officials also asked residents in river communities to prepare for potential evacuations due to the threat of rising water. The Illinois Department of Emergency Management said Thursday that reports indicate the state is experiencing the longest-lasting flood since 1927.
The warnings come as the weather service predicts record or near-record crests in the coming week.
The Mississippi River is forecast to crest in Clarksville, Mo., on Friday at 37.6 feet, just one-tenth of a foot below the 1993 record. It is expected to reach 38.8 feet Saturday in Winfield, which is eight-tenths of a foot below the record.
The Illinois River at Valley City is expected to crest Monday at 27.3 feet. The record crest in the tiny village north of Interstate 72 is 27 feet.
Illinois state officials say they’re using 2 million sandbags to hold water back. They say they want to preserve evacuation routes, so priorities include protecting levees and preventing road closures and bridge failures.
More frequent major floods in recent years have drawn some attention to a combination of factors that amplify risk. Those include the increased likelihood of extreme precipitation caused by climate change, and the constriction of rivers by widespread levee systems, which push water higher by preventing it from fanning across natural floodplains.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.