Missouri struggles with deadly flooding

Thursday, March 20, 2008

PIEDMONT, Mo. -- Rain eased up across most of southern Missouri Wednesday, but it left behind a soggy mess of flooded-out roads, stranded motorists and a cleanup bill likely to run in the millions.

With at least five people dead and hundreds more displaced, authorities are straining to keep pace with some of the worst flooding to hit their region in decades.

"Missourians should know that we are doing everything within our power to provide state resources to communities in need," Gov. Matt Blunt said.

He said the state was checking on nursing homes and hospitals, mobilizing rescues, opening shelters, closing highways and working to ensure safe drinking water. He's also seeking federal disaster declarations for 70 counties and the city of St. Louis.

The sudden and ceaseless rain that began Monday and continued virtually nonstop until Wednesday killed five people and left hundreds out of their homes. The flooding sparked dozens of rescues, breached levees, prompted evacuations and closed hundreds of roads and a railroad line.

On Wednesday, the death toll rose to five when searchers found the body of Mark G. Speir Jr., 19, in southwest Missouri, about two miles downstream from where he was reported swept into a creek in Monett the previous evening.

The Lawrence County Sheriff's Department said Speir had apparently gone to look at flooded Kelly Creek and fell in. Rescuers had resumed the search after dawn Wednesday and found the body around 9:30 a.m.

"He was going down the creek screaming and hollering," Lawrence County emergency management chief Mike Rowe said.

Parts of southern Missouri received as much as 12 inches of rain, leaving residents and community officials from Springfield to Cape Girardeau assessing the damage.

Blunt activated the Missouri National Guard. Hundreds of roads were closed in southern, central and eastern Missouri because of high water.

After two days, rain had finally stopped falling by Wednesday afternoon in much of Missouri and Arkansas as the weather system crawled toward the Northeast, drenching the Ohio Valley and spreading snow over parts of northern New England. A parallel band of locally heavy rain stretched from Alabama and Georgia to the mid-Atlantic states.

The heavy rains also pushed the Missouri River at or near flood stage through much of the central and eastern portions of the state. In Jefferson City, the river pushed out of its banks Wednesday but remains several feet below natural flood stage.

But in Hermann, the river climbed more than 3 1/2 feet above flood stage.

Two of the hardest hit towns were only a few miles apart in southeast Missouri -- Ellington and Piedmont, where homes and businesses were flooded and evacuated.

Wayne County Emergency Management director Eric Fuchs said he had heard of rescues off rooftops and trees in Piedmont.

"We had some serious touch-and-go rescues yesterday," he said.

The damage hasn't been assessed yet, but Fuchs predicted it would be extensive.

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