Rains of biblical proportions hammered America’s heartland in recent days, leaving at least 13 people dead and hundreds in shelters, inundating towns with feet of water as swollen creeks and rivers flowed from Arkansas through southern Illinois and into Indiana and Kentucky.
The damage in this tiny mountain town 120 miles southwest of St. Louis is emblematic of what is happening throughout the region and a taste of disaster to come as bulging watersheds are expected to continue to overflow for hundreds of miles.
About 300 businesses and homes were damaged — some with up to 5 feet of water — as a deluge in excess of 14 inches of rain descended beginning Monday and into Wednesday.
“It was a wall of water like I have never seen,” said Richard Bloom, who vacated his apartment by wading through water onto a rescue firetruck. “It was almost impossible to get out.”
Bloom has spent the last several days at shelter at a Baptist church on a hill overlooking this town of about 2,000 people. As the rains finally stopped Wednesday, the bloated McKenzie Creek receded enough to make Piedmont’s Main Street passable.
Many downtown businesses are boarded up with floors caked in mud. Bloom and other residents are struggling to recover, but they cannot return to their homes. That is because beyond the flood damage, the town lacks a water supply due to destruction to the pipes and pumping stations.
“Dozens of roads are impassable because of damage,” said Brian Polk, the town’s presiding commissioner. “Several towns for miles around have no drinking water. The magnitude of the disaster is wide in scope and stretches for hundreds of miles around.”
Across Missouri, hundreds of residents were scurrying Wednesday to pack up their belongings in anticipation of more flooding.
“While we have seen terrible things, possibly the worst is yet to come,” Polk said.
Five deaths were linked to the flooding in Missouri, five people were killed in a highway wreck in heavy rain in Kentucky and a 65-year-old Ohio woman appeared to have drowned while checking on a sump pump in her home. In southern Illinois, two bodies were found hours after floodwaters swept a pickup truck off a rural road in Jefferson County.
Towns along the Meramec River southwest of St. Louis expect the highest river levels in more than a quarter-century in the next 24 to 48 hours. Using rental trucks, residents were piling up belongings, artwork and other valuables to transport to safe ground.
In 1982, the Meramec hit a record 39.7 feet; flood stage is 16 feet. A levee completed just three years ago is designed to hold a flood of 43 feet, 3 feet above the crest forecast for this week.
The towns of Valley Park and Eureka in Missouri were most at risk from the wrath of the river. “We’ve got everybody working together,” said Valley Park Alderman Steve Drake. “It’s going to be interesting.”
Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt said he was seeking a federal disaster declaration for 70 of Missouri’s 114 counties and the city of St. Louis.
A foot of rain had fallen in sections of southern Illinois and at Mountain Home, Ark., and Cape Girardeau, Mo., while 7.7 inches fell at Evansville, Ind., the National Weather Service said.
In southern Illinois, numerous roads were closed by the flooding. On Tuesday night in Marion, firefighters used their own fishing boats to rescue 13 residents of the city’s housing authority and five stranded motorists.
The deluge also was blamed for floodwaters that closed off access to the tiny town of Makanda near Carbondale.
Across southern Indiana, roads and schools were closed by the flooding. The Red Cross set up a shelter for people displaced by floodwaters in Evansville.
In French Lick, Ind., about 20 people were evacuated from the historic West Baden Springs Hotel.
While the rain tapered off Wednesday afternoon, major flooding was expected over the next few days for many southern Indiana rivers.
Ohio rescue workers were busy helping people out of cars swamped by the floods.
“The biggest problem has been people driving into floodwater,” said Frank Young, emergency management director in Warren County. “There are a lot of stupid people. When that sign says ‘Road closed, high water,’ that’s what it means.”