SIKESTON, Mo. -- Only God can keep Interstate 55 dry. But the Missouri Department of Transportation is working to keep it drivable.
Interstate 55 is a critical piece of ammunition in Southeast Missouri's historic flood fight and state transportation officials want to keep floodwaters off the roadway by installing four pump stations and nearly 2,000 feet of sandbags to a particularly troublesome spot just south of Sikeston.
The Missouri Department of Transportation is battling backwater that is gathering in medians and ditches along I-55 near mile marker 59, said Eric Krapf, the department's transportation project manager who also oversees Southeast Missouri's interstates. The water is coming in from the St. John's Bayou basin, a drainage system that is part of the Mississippi River floodplain, he said.
Heavy rains and congested flood-drainage systems in nearby communities have backed the water into the system, causing inflow of water, but no way for the ground water to escape, Krapf said.
"Basically, we've got a bathtub that's filling up right now," he said. "But we're equipped to deal with this."
They've placed four pumping stations at the spot -- two in the median and one on either side of the highway -- to keep the water from moving onto the highway. Krapf doesn't want to see I-55 suffer the same fate as nearby Highway 80, which was closed by floodwaters from I-55 to U.S. 61. MoDOT's Southeast District has closed routes in 13 counties because of flooding.
But Interstate 55 is crucial, Krapf said.
"We're trying to keep I-55 open," he said. "That's the major artery into the area. With this flooding, people need supplies, help and food. It'd be a bad thing if we'd lose 55."
For example, while the sandbagging efforts were going on, Krapf said he saw numerous Missouri National Guard convoys pass by, traveling down I-55 to perform missions in drenched Southeast Missouri.
"If 55 is closed, I don't know how they're getting by," he said.
The stretch of sandbags were placed on Thursday and Friday, with MoDOT workers and two 25-man crews of prison workers who put in 12-hour shifts. They've put in sump pumps into the road side ditches, as well, he said. The pump stations are removing water from the median and forcing it through pipes that run under the highway and out into nearby floodwaters a distance away.
"Our job is to keep the roads open and that's what we're focused on," Krapf said.
The transportation department opened U.S. 60 from Sikeston to Dexter on Friday, after flooding had forced it closed for several days. The department built an earthen berm to keep water from collecting on the roadway, despite protests from nearby Morehouse. Morehouse residents say that the man-made levee has forced more water into their community, completely flooding the town of 1,000 residents and forcing many from their homes.
Bill Robison, the Southeast District planning manager for MoDOT, agreed that keeping roadways like I-55 and U.S. 60 open is critical for emergency management in a crisis such as this.
"There are so many things going on," he said. "We're talking about the levee at Birds Point, Wappapello, all the flood-fighting efforts. These corridors are vital for safety to our region. It's a bad situation if we have to close I-55."