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Rare winter flood to blame for 20 Midwest deaths

Posted at 3:26 PM, Dec 30, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-30 17:26:59-05

A rare winter flood that brought record crests along the Mississippi River in Missouri and Illinois and swamped parts of Missouri caused evacuations and at least 20 deaths, with the threat of more flooding expected to last until early next week.

Here's a look at what has happened so far and forecasts for future problems:

WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?

An unseasonably wet late fall and early winter had already swollen the Mississippi River above its normal winter levels when heavy rains drenched most of Missouri beginning on Saturday.

Springfield received 11.43 inches this month, making it the wettest December in history, breaking a record set in 1895, said Megan Terry, a National Weather Service meteorologist and hydrologist. St. Louis received nearly 10 inches of rain in December, which was already four times the normal amount.

Mark Fuchs, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service in St. Louis, says three-day rainfall totals of 9 to 11 inches stretched from southwest to east-central Missouri, causing rainfall totals that occur only every 100 to 300 years.

In Illinois, a disaster proclamation was issued Tuesday for Calhoun, Jackson, Jersey, Madison, Monroe, Randolph and St. Clair counties, where about 7 inches of rain fell between Dec. 23 and 28.

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WHERE IS IT WORST?

The flooding prompted authorities to evacuate residents in some smaller towns, mostly near St. Louis. The largest evacuation was in West Alton, Missouri, where 400 people left their homes by early Wednesday, said Mike O'Connell, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Public Safety.

Downtown Alton, Illinois, was open for business on Wednesday after volunteers constructed a 7-foot, 1,000-foot wall of sandbags to protect the town. However, the Argosy Alton casino remained closed.

Limited evacuations also were conducted in low-lying areas such as the St. Louis suburb of Valley Park, Kimmswick in Jefferson County and McBride in Perry County, O'Connell said.

Earlier in the week, the Franklin County town of Union was mostly closed after waters from the Bourbeuse, Meramec and Missouri rivers flooded the town and closed most surrounding roads. The waters were dropping Wednesday and several roads were open, although others remained closed while the roads' conditions were checked, Sheriff Gary Toelke said in a news release.

The heavy weekend rains also caused flooding in southwest Missouri in Carthage and nearby Kendricktown, where some residents were evacuated Sunday. And residents in about 55 duplexes and 100 single-family homes in the tourist community of Branson, Missouri, were evacuated but the city's popular shopping district remained open and busy Wednesday.

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WHERE/HOW HAVE PEOPLE DIED

Although the most severe flooding in Missouri occurred along the Mississippi River in the St. Louis area, most of the 14 fatalities in the state were in southwest and central Missouri. Gov. Jay Nixon's office said nearly all of the victims were in cars that drove onto water-covered roads in the heavy rain during the weekend.

The dead included five international soldiers from Fort Leonard Wood whose vehicle was swept away by floodwaters Saturday in Pulaski County. Two other people were swept to their deaths at nearly the same time and just miles away in the south-central Missouri county.

One man died after being electrocuted when his tow truck came in contact with a downed power line. Vernon County authorities also were looking Wednesday for a duck hunter who was missing in a conservation area.

Seven people died in Illinois as of Wednesday. Two drowned in Christian County, when they tried to cross a flooded area. On Saturday, five members of a Kentucky family, including three children, died when they tried to cross a low-lying bridge near Patoka and were caught in a rain-swollen creek.

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WHAT'S EXPECTED NEXT

The rain had mostly stopped by Wednesday across Missouri and affected areas in Illinois and the National Weather Service predicted a break from any rain through Tuesday.

Some points along Missouri rivers were receding Wednesday, though other communities along the major waterways in Missouri and Illinois still awaiting crests in the next few days.

In St. Louis, the Mississippi continued rising to within a foot of its predicted peak early Friday, 8 feet shy of the 1993 record. Downriver south to Chester, Illinois, the Mississippi is expected to crest Saturday, also less than a foot from its 1993 milestone.

At Thebes, in southern Illinois, the Mississippi was expected to crest at before dawn on Sunday, about 1½ feet above the 1993 record.