Mississippi River flooding to threaten more levees, homes after leaving St. Louis area submerged

By By Alex Sosnowski, AccuWeather senior meteorologist.
January 03, 2016, 11:51:54 AM EST

Deadly flooding is expected to surge farther south along the Mississippi River over the coming days, putting many more levees at risk for failing and more homes and highways under water.

Communities along the Mississippi River in Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana should be prepared for flood issues over the coming weeks as the copious amount of water travels farther south.

Water levels will continue to rise in Memphis, Tennessee, and Greenville, Mississippi, as well as Baton Rouge, Louisiana, through the second week of January. Levees will be forced to hold back the rising water, but in some cases may fail, as has been seen in the past week. Residents in these areas will want to be prepared for potentially historic flooding.

Flooding on the middle portion of the Mississippi River and some of its tributaries reached levels not seen during the winter months since records began during the middle 1800s.

Communities near St. Louis were devastated as the river entered major flood stage early on Wednesday morning. The river receded to a moderate flood stage early Sunday morning local time and will continue to lower through the week.

While the river has crested, several more days of flooding are still expected which will slow down cleaning and recovery efforts. On Saturday, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon requested a federal emergency declaration to assist with debris removal and recovery costs.

“Devastating, record flooding has affected hundreds of homes and businesses across the St. Louis region and left a trail of destruction and debris,” Gov. Nixon said in a press release. " “Missouri response agencies, businesses, volunteers and citizens have responded heroically to the challenges, and now as we work to recover and move forward, I’m requesting federal resources for debris removal to speed the recovery process and ease the burden on strained local communities.”

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Flooding is also occurring along the Illinois, Bourbeuse, lower Missouri, lower Arkansas, Meramec, and part of the lower Ohio rivers.

As waters continue to recede in the St. Louis area, flooding will move downstream along the Mississippi through the middle of the month putting more communities and residents in danger.

In addition to setting a new high mark for the winter months, water levels on the Mississippi and other rivers are rivaling the marks set during the summer of 1993 and spring of 1995 and 2011 in some cases.

The 1993 flooding was one of the “most damaging natural disasters to ever hit the United States,” according to NOAA. The catastrophic flooding resulted in 50 deaths and damages totaling $15 billion. Thousands were forced to flee their homes, with many unable to return for months.


On Wednesday, record-high flood levels were reached along portions of the Meramec River at Eureka, Valley Park and Arnold, Missouri.

According to the Associated Press, the levee protecting much of St. Louis held. However, major highways were closed due to high water, including portions of Interstate 55 and I-44. High, fast-moving water halted barge operations at the busy port.

The Mississippi crested at 42.58 feet at St. Louis on Friday, shy of the 1993 record.

However, the record of 45.91 feet at Thebes, Illinois, set during May 1995, was topped on Thursday evening. After reaching 47.74 feet, water levels will continue to lower this weekend.

Cape Girardeau, Missouri, will continue to experience high Mississippi River levels through the early part of this week after breaking the record on Friday.

Many communities along the middle and lower Mississippi Valley will be dealing with long-duration high water lasting days after the crest has occurred.


It may take a week or longer for water levels to fall below flood stage, following a crest.

Periods of below-freezing temperatures will cause some flooded areas to turn icy and will add to the challenges of cleanup.

Communities already hit hard by flooding

Floodwaters forced the closure of two sewage treatment plants in the St. Louis area, according to the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District.

The flooding led to 11 United States Postal Service stations around the St. Louis metro area to relocate temporarily, according to NewsRadio 1120 KMOX.

Interstate 55 and I-44 reopened south of St. Louis on Friday after conditions eased in the area, the AP reports.

According to the Mississippi Valley Division of the Army Corp of Engineers, Col. Anthony Mitchell, St. Louis District commander toured the federal levee around Valley Park, Missouri, with Valley Park Mayor Mike Pinnese on Wednesday.

The division stated earlier in the week that 19 levees are highly vulnerable to flooding in the Mississippi Valley.

"The St. Louis District has more than 50 engineers and technical experts deployed throughout the region supporting local flood fighting efforts with some of the highest Mississippi River levels since the Great Flood of 2011," the division said in its Facebook post.

At least 11 levees have failed as of Friday afternoon local time, the AP reports. Residents of East Cape Girardeau and McClure, Illinois, were urged to evacuate Friday by local authorities due to a potential overtopping of parts of the East Cape Girardeau levee.

Twelve Illinois counties have been declared disaster areas by Gov. Bruce Rauner, according to a press release.

Flood prevention efforts are ongoing downstream in locations such as Memphis, Tennessee.


At least 24 people have been killed by the dangerous flooding, the AP reports. Out of the 14 deaths in Missouri, 13 were caused by vehicles being swept off flooded roads, according to state officials.

Flooding to work downstream through January

The smaller tributaries of the Mississippi will crest relatively quickly following the tremendous rainfall from the storms after Christmas. Meanwhile, the Mississippi River and large tributaries near the main waterway will take an extended period of time to crest and then fall below flood stage.


Even after the Mississippi and its tributaries crest in Missouri and Illinois through the first week of January, waters will continue to rise in portions of Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

"It will take weeks or until the latter part of January for the last of the crests to cycle southward to the Gulf of Mexico," AccuWeather Meteorologist Jim Andrews said.

Along the Mississippi, flooding is likely downstream during the middle to latter part of January, including in Osceola, Arkansas, Memphis, Tennessee, and Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Springlike flooding occurs amid El Niño pattern

Since December and November have been so warm and so wet, the atmosphere and watershed are behaving more like it's spring.

Temperatures over much of the Mississippi Valley have averaged 8-12 degrees Fahrenheit above normal and featured highs in the 60s and 70s during December.

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During November and December, frequent storms loaded with abundant moisture have delivered rainfall well above average to much of the Mississippi Basin.

The pattern is typical of an El Niño, but rainfall of this magnitude has crossed into uncharted territory for the region.

Since Nov. 1, St. Louis has received more than 18 inches of rain versus the average of 6.50 inches typical for this time frame. St. Louis shattered its December rainfall record of 7.82 inches set during the El Niño of 1982. This December, St. Louis received 11.74 inches of rain.

Farther north along the Mississippi River, Minneapolis has received nearly two and a half times its normal rainfall since Nov. 1.

Just after Christmas the bursts of rain, which amounted to 6-12 inches in some areas, sealed the fate for river flooding.

"Rainfall is significantly less over the central United States during the winter, when compared to the spring and summer," Andrews said

"During the wintertime, more precipitation falls as snow over the region, which tends to absorb the runoff and causes river levels to fall."


Flooding in the spring to early summer is much more common as rainfall ramps up and snow melts over the northern tier states, eastern slopes of the Rockies and the west slopes of the Appalachians.

"The amazing thing about this flood is that it has occurred with very little snow melt," Andrews said.

Less rain in the near-future, but flooding potential to return

There is some good news in the short term.

Colder and drier weather will return during much of January, and freezing temperatures at night will slow the runoff.


Storms that roll through will drop much less water on the region, in comparison to late December. Once the rivers crest, they should not rise significantly in the weeks ahead.

However, there is the potential for another round of flooding during the spring of 2016.

"We still have to go through the snowy part of the winter season over the North Central states," AccuWeather Chief Long-Range Meteorologist Paul Pastelok said.

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The main storm track will shift southward during the winter but will return northward in the spring with the combination of a thaw and rainfall.

"El Niño may still be strong enough to enhance the strength of the storms and the amount of rainfall during the spring," Pastelok said.

AccuWeather Meteorologists Jordan Root and Brett Rathbun and Staff Writer Kevin Byrne also contributed to this story.

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