Jason Peck didn’t expect 2016 to start out like this.
Three to four feet of floodwater wiped out his basement and living room. Recalling the damage to his son’s room brought Peck close to tears.
“I didn’t believe it was going to get like this,” he told CNN on Saturday.
Here, in St. Louis County, residents returning to water-logged communities began the painstaking process of surveying the damage, cleaning up and salvaging whatever they could.
Eureka is on the Meramec River, which empties into the Mississippi River. The Meramec rose a record 35 feet in the last three days.
The swollen Mississippi has crested but flood warnings still covered areas where 8 million people live in 16 states.
“I’m from this part of the state and, quite frankly, it’s almost hard to believe,” Gov. Jay Nixon told reporters Saturday. “It’s almost as if you’re living on some other planet.”
Nixon has requested a federal emergency declaration to speed debris removal and relieve the strain of recovery costs in the St. Louis region.
Several thousand people were forced to evacuate or suffered damage to their homes, hundreds of businesses also sustained damage and hundreds of water rescues were conducted, according to Nixon.
“The work is not over,” said the governor, speaking at a drop-off point for flood debris and refuse.
“The high water may have passed here in Eureka and in other parts of the St. Louis region but behind me you see just a tiny fraction of the trail of destruction that the flood water has left.”
That trail runs through Jason Peck’s home. His family had planned for the flooding, he said. They placed sandbags around the house and took other precautions. After midnight on Tuesday, however, the preparations appeared inadequate.
“We heard it was coming,” he said of the flooding. “Then we heard some rushing water and went downstairs and three o’clock is when it got real bad and [water] started shooting up through the drains.”
Peck’s son has not seen what’s left of his bedroom. The family waited for an insurance adjuster. Peck said he has no flood insurance but damage from a sewer backup may be covered.
“We have a lot of grossness in there,” he said.
‘Kind of winging it’
At the house where Tim Hodge and his family, including a newborn, moved in weeks ago, the flood waters cascaded down a hill in the backyard. The water line in his basement reached about 6 feet. A hulking refrigerator sailed across the room.
“It’s pretty intimidating,” he said. “And with a newborn baby, you watch this water get up to where it’s inches from those electrical outlets and it’s probably time to get ready to go.”
Their new furniture was muddied and soaked. New appliances were damaged. The water heater was torn apart.
But Hodge said he was grateful for his neighbors.
“We’re kind of winging it really,” he said. “Thank God all these neighbors have come in. We would have never been able to even do half the stuff we had without them.”
In 16 years at the same house in Eureka, Dean Emmert has never seen such a rare, winter flood.
Emmert said he was up all night Tuesday, waiting out the flood. It arrived about 3 a.m.
“We got everybody up and we ended up trying to get everything we could upstairs that we could reach,” he said.
The basement took a foot and half of water, he said.
Outside his house, like many others in Eureka, sat a pile of damaged furniture and appliances.
“We had a lot pictures down there, especially when our kids were young,” Emmert said. “A lot of those we lost.”
Still, his wife and children were fine, he said. Residents helped each other with food, blankets and the muscle power needed to carry out damaged household goods to overflowing dumpsters.
“When you look at things … you just want to cry,” he said. “But there are a lot of things we still have. We’ve been blessed.”
The threat from the historic flooding is not over. Places on the Mississippi in southern Missouri and Illinois could see record water levels until early next week, according to meteorologists.
Water submerged neighborhoods, schools and shopping centers, and carried off whole houses. The storms and floods killed 15 people in Missouri, officials have said.
In Illinois, the death toll grew to nine with the discovery of an 18-year-old’s body, according to Christian County Coroner Amy Calvert Winans. Search teams traced pings from a cell phone to locate a pickup truck in which the teen was believed to have been riding, the sheriff’s office said. A second teenager last seen in the truck is missing.
Many of those who died drove into high, rushing water and were carried away in their cars.
The Meramec River, which meets the Mississippi near Arnold, crested at 47.2 feet Thursday, about 9 feet above what is considered a major flood stage in the community of about 20,000. Sandbags saved some homes there, but about 10 were flooded, with one home getting about 7 feet of water, CNN affiliate KMOV reported.
By Friday afternoon, conditions had eased in the St. Louis area.
All portions of interstates 44 and 55 I-44 in the St. Louis area had reopened. Parts of those highways, including a 24-mile stretch of I-44, were closed because of flooding earlier this week.
A week ago, bad weather spread across the country, starting with a spate of tornadoes. By the weekend, the Midwest was flooded. The clouds have long cleared out, and no more rain is expected in the Mississippi River basin until late next week. But runoff has swelled rivers, and in areas south of St. Louis, they have yet to crest.
‘Bacteria in the river water’
On Thursday, the flooding breached a St. Louis-area wastewater treatment plant near the Meramec River — the second such breach there in a week — sending untreated waste into the river. Missouri American Water spokeswoman Ann Dettmer said the water in homes and businesses in the area still is safe to use.
“We are seeing higher levels of bacteria in the river water … but we’re managing it,” she told CNN.
Other plants are treating the river water, she said. “We are meeting state and federal standards. They don’t have to worry about their drinking water.”
Residents in the southernmost tip of Illinois anxiously watched the levees Friday night.
In the Alexander County seat of Cairo, where the Mississippi and Ohio rivers meet, the Ohio is expected to crest Sunday at 56.5 feet, more than 3 feet above major flooding stage.
Water has already gone over the top of one levee, prompting people to evacuate areas nearby, the office of Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner said.
A second levee has “good potential” of overtopping, Patty Thompson with the Illinois Emergency Management Agency said.
Sheriff’s deputies went door-to door recommending people evacuate from the towns of East Cape Girardeau and McClure.
River crest records
At its peak, the Mississippi River should be at its highest level ever, Nixon has said, beating the highest level of the great flood of 1993, the benchmark for flood catastrophes in the region.
As the runoff from the deluges that hit around Christmas continues gathering in rivers that empty into the Mississippi River, downstream, gauges are predicting flooding in areas farther south as deep torrents roll that way — in Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana.
Hundreds of miles to the south, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the river is expected to crest above flood stage on January 19.