Valley Park braces for record flooding

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

VALLEY PARK, Mo. (AP) -- Chandra Webster's kids were running bags of toys and clothes to the car while she moved boxes of belongings from the basement and first floor to the second. Her husband was shuttling furniture to another location, far away from the Meramec River.

"It's a lot of work, but it's worth it to save your stuff," Webster, 34, said Wednesday. "In '82 we lost everything when I was a little girl. I don't want to put my kids through that."

Heavy and constant rain over a two-day period has caused the Meramec to rise beyond flood stage, and while the rain finally stopped Wednesday, the muddy river that flows through parts of eastern Missouri kept rising.

The National Weather Service was calling for record and near-record flood levels at several towns, including Valley Park, a working class community of 6,500 residents in southwest St. Louis County. By midday Wednesday, Valley Park officials were still deciding whether to require the 2,000 residents in the flood zone to get out.

St. Louis County emergency officials, though, urged voluntary evacuations for low-lying areas along the Meramec in and around the towns of Eureka, Fenton and Valley Park. Police in Pacific went door-to-door to evacuate a few dozen homes near the river.

Many Valley Park residents figured they'd never have to go through this again. The town has long been at the whim of the Meramec. Flooding has been frequent, including the 1982 record, when the river reached 39.7 feet. Flood stage is 16 feet.

Enough is enough, the city said, and an earthen flood levee was completed just three years ago, in theory able to withstand a flood of 43 feet.

The new levee is getting a big test. By Wednesday, the river had crept above flood stage on the way to an expected record crest of 40 feet late Friday or early Saturday, said Mark Fuchs, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service office in suburban St. Louis.

"It's going to be a big one," he said.

Residents were taking the news in stride. Some rented moving trucks and trailers to move out items. Others relocated furniture and belongings to upper floors. Dozens joined in to fill sandbags, mostly to be placed around flood gates to fight potential seepage.

"I was hoping I would never have to do this again, but when you live in the Valley, you never know what will happen," said Donna Adams, who braved a chilly wind and temperatures in the 30s to sandbag along with her two sons and a nephew.

"I wasn't too concerned about it, but they just kept upping the forecast. It makes you worry."

Steve Drake, a town alderman, was sandbagging at another flood gate alongside several volunteers from Valley Park High School.

"We've got everybody working together," Drake said. "It's going to be interesting."

Fuchs projected a record crest of 43 feet at Eureka, and a crest of 31.5 feet at Pacific, a couple of feet short of the all-time high.

Fuchs said this level of flooding on the Meramec is difficult to reach. But the driving rain settled over the entire Meramec region.

"We're looking at two-day totals of 4 to 8 inches of rain in the Meramec basin," he said. "It just happened to fall at the wrong place."

Other rivers were also seeing significant flooding in southern Missouri -- the Big, the St. Francis, the Gasconade. Even the Mississippi and Missouri were expected to see levels above flood stage in Missouri. Mississippi River towns like Hannibal, Louisiana, even St. Louis could see minor flooding. On the Missouri, small-scale flooding was projected at Hermann, Gasconade and Washington.

Webster, a lifelong resident of Valley Park, was taking it all in stride, calmly directing her children -- ages 13, 10 and 5 -- as they excitedly carried armloads to the car.

"Going through this as many times as I have, you just learn to be prepared," she said.

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