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With 'no good alternate routes,' road closures cutting off Jefferson County

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ARNOLD • The old adage “you can’t get there from here” may soon become the mantra of a large section of the St. Louis metro area, as flooding cuts off key routes between St. Louis and Jefferson counties.

The expected closure of Interstate 55 Wednesday, and the possible closure of Lemay Ferry and Telegraph roads at some point, would sever untold numbers of employees from their jobs and lead school districts such as Lindbergh and Mehlville to close school Wednesday due to a crisis of staffing.

Greg Horn, district engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation, laid out the choice that faced residents on both sides of the Meramec River on Tuesday.

“You all are going to have to decide what side of the river you want to be on before you go to bed tonight, because you’re not going to be able to go back and forth,” Horn said.

The flooding has already crippled key traffic arteries, chief among them I-44 at Highway 141, which is expected to be underwater for days. Other closures, starting from the west, include Highway F south of Pacific and Highway 109 in Eureka at the river.

But in those cases, alternative routes — albeit time-consuming ones — have remained available. That’s not the case as the arteries between Jefferson and St. Louis counties are closed, which also include Highway 30 (Gravois Road).

“Alternate routes? There are really no good alternate routes,” Horn said. “Cape Girardeau is probably the closest way, so that’s a long way.”

“This is a huge event, probably the biggest we’ve ever had,” Horn added.

Residents in Arnold prepared for their pending isolation Tuesday afternoon, with grocery store parking lots bustling.

Betty Hill, an Imperial resident, said she was coming to the Arnold Walmart to stock up on items, preparing to be stuck at home for a few days. Hill is retired, but she’s worried about her son having access to his machinist job across the river. He might have to miss work, she said.

“In 2015 we were stuck on the highway for five hours,” Hill recalls of the flooding 16 months ago that briefly closed I-55.

This time, Hill said, she and her family are not messing around.

Students at National Academy of Beauty Arts started leaving about noon Tuesday, instructor Kelly Jennemann said. The beauty school is closing on Wednesday and possibly Thursday. Jennemann said it wasn’t worth the risk because most of the students come from the other side of the river.

A manager at the Arnold Hotshots location said the flooding actually helped their business. In 2015, area businesses put their employees up in hotels, such as the Drury Inn in the same parking lot, and those people needed somewhere to eat.

He said the bar and grill was putting its own waitresses up in hotels so they didn’t have to worry about getting stuck among road closures.

Canceling classes

The two largest school systems in south St. Louis County — Lindbergh and Mehlville — said opening schools Wednesday would simply be impossible, because of a lack of teachers, bus drivers and food service workers who live in Jefferson County.

“With the closure of 55 and there being no way around the Meramec, we don’t have any other option,” said Beth Johnston, spokeswoman for Lindbergh Schools.

Mehlville issued a similar statement: “While most of our families are not impacted, many of our employees live in Jefferson County and will be unable to get to school tomorrow. More than 20 percent of our employees reside in Jefferson County. Specifically, 22 bus routes would not have drivers. Our ability to transport kids to school, have meaningful instruction, serve meals and safely supervise students would be significantly compromised.”

Some districts, such as Northwest, have also decided to close because they worry that students or parents may be unable to reach school or return home from school because of road closures.

Northwest Superintendent Paul Ziegler also said having clean water for students was a concern. Northwest schools are currently relying on shipments of thousands of water bottles because flooding has complicated water utilities.

The Rockwood School District — which had previously closed only select schools — announced it was canceling all classes Wednesday, partly because of staffing struggles. Valley Park and Fox are among the school systems that have previously closed.

‘We can’t really do much’

Hospitals near flooded areas — St. Anthony’s Medical Center, SSM St. Clare Hospital and Des Peres Hospital — are making accommodations for staff to stay overnight if they fear not being able to drive to or from their homes. For employees unable to make it to work, managers have made sure their shifts are covered, officials say. The hospitals are fully stocked with food, linens and medical supplies.

“We know the drill,” said communications coordinator Joe Poelker with St. Anthony’s, speaking from experience with similar flooding in December 2015.

The Bowles Avenue exit from Interstate 44 — the main route to St. Clare Hospital — remains open and is expected to remain open despite being in the closure area west of Interstate 270, hospital representative Stephanie Zoller said.

Charles Wilken, the director of marketing at Fabick Cat in Fenton, said the company had already moved equipment to higher ground in anticipation of the rising floodwater. The company, which sells and services Caterpillar equipment, sits just west of the Meramec River but was mostly unscathed by the 2015 floods.

“We’re going to stay open as long as we can,” Wilken said.

Two miles west on Interstate 44, sales and marketing firm Maritz told its employees to work from home Tuesday and Wednesday unless they absolutely needed to come in for business.

Maritz’s Fenton headquarters was still accessible, spokeswoman Jennifer Larsen said, but many if not most of the company’s employees didn’t work from the office Tuesday. Almost 1,800 people work at Maritz’s Fenton headquarters.

At 84 Lumber in Arnold, managers are playing it by ear.

The Arnold location has taken in a truck and materials from the Valley Park location, which co-manager Jarrett Halley said was flooded.

But with the roads around them closed, making deliveries impossible, Halley said he was not really sure what the rest of the week would look like.

“This absolutely affects our business,” he said. “If we can’t do deliveries, we can’t really do much.”

He said enough employees lived close by that the shop would stay open.

Slow going

Closures on Interstate 44 due to flooding

A view of Interstate 44, looking west from Geyer Road, at about 8 a.m. on Tuesday, May, 2017. Westbound I-44 traffic is being re-routed west of Interstate 270 due to fooding. Photo by Cristina M. Fletes, cfletes@post-dispatch.com

Officials say that for the most part drivers were adapting to the detours Tuesday. Many drivers used Manchester Road (Highway 100) as an alternative to Interstate 44.

Mark Diedrich, the St. Louis County emergency management agency director, said the morning’s commute was not as bad as feared.

“I don’t think it was great, but I think people expected it and prepared for it,” Diedrich said.

Officials had warned that it would be extremely slow going on Manchester, which even under normal times has a high traffic flow and can get tied up.

MoDOT officials said the worst jams on Highway 100 occurred in a two-lane segment between Gray Summit and Highway T in the St. Albans area. East of there where the road has more lanes, Horn said, “it wasn’t good but wasn’t horrible.”

MoDOT officials urged motorists on Manchester to avoid making left turns as much as possible. In an effort to keep traffic moving, they said, the duration of left turn signals on Manchester and streets crossing had been reduced.

Authorities said it appeared drivers listened. Some area schools were closed, also helping keep some traffic of the road.

The closures will probably last the week and quite possibly into the weekend. Even after water recedes, Horn said, roads and bridges have to be checked for damage and repaired if need be. For example, I-44 flooded near Lebanon, Mo., on Sunday. The water has largely receded, but there was significant damage to the pavement, and it may be the weekend before the interstate reopens.

Utility woes

The rising Meramec is disrupting operations for some water and sewer facilities, but other plants expect to have enough flood protection to avoid interruptions in service.

Missouri American Water is planning to shut down one of its south St. Louis County treatment facilities on Wednesday morning, prompting utility officials to ask customers to limit water usage.

“Our capacity is going to go down by about 10 percent, so we’re going to need people to conserve water,” said Missouri American spokesman Brian Russell.

Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District wastewater treatment facilities in Valley Park and Fenton are both threatened by floodwater, as well. But MSD representatives say protective barriers around each are expected to withstand the projected river crests.

“We’re as prepared as we can be right now,” said MSD executive director and CEO Brian Hoelscher, adding that both Fenton and Grand Glaize in Valley Park were “under control.”

The two treatment plants were overwhelmed by floodwater in late 2015. The Fenton plant was out of service until April, releasing raw sewage into the Meramec River for months.

This time, Hoelscher said, forecasts gave the sewer district more time to build defenses around the treatment plants.

“We learned from last time and we had a lot more warning,” he said.

But the longer the crest lasts, the more risk there is that temporary sandbag and concrete barriers protecting them might fail, he cautioned.

MSD has made some changes, Hoelscher said. For instance, electrical controls in Fenton have been raised so they are less likely to be damaged by flooding. Manholes and pipes where rainwater was seeping into the sewer system and backing up into the plant — a major contributor to its flooding in 2015 — have been repaired.

MSD has applied for funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help raise the Fenton plant’s levee by a few feet. It was already designed for so-called “500-year” flood protection.

The utility has also received about 600 calls of water backups and has responded to roughly half of them, according to spokesman Sean Hadley.

Amtrak service halted

The flooding prompted Amtrak to suspend rail service across Missouri.

Kristi Jamison, with MoDOT, said ticketed passengers for trips between St. Louis and Kansas City would be transported by bus. She said passengers should expect delays because buses would have to detour around flooded roads.

Jamison said it was possible the tracks would reopen by Saturday but that would depend on whether more rain fell this week.

Post-Dispatch reporters Bryce Gray, Ashley Jost, Kristen Taketa, Jacob Barker, Michele Munz and Mark Schlinkmann contributed to this report.

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