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I-55 and westbound I-44 reopen as floodwaters recede

Waters continue to rise around I-55 near Butler Hill on Wednesday morning. May 2017
File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Waters continue to rise around I-55 near Butler Hill on Wednesday morning.

Updated May 4 at 7 p.m. with information about West Alton — Officials with the Rivers Pointe Fire Protection District are urging residents east of Highway 67 in West Alton who plan to evacuate, particularly those who are elderly or have a disability, to do so immediately. Those planning to ride out the flooding, officials said in a Facebook post, should secure provisions.

The city has been under a voluntary evacuation order since Tuesday. But the Missouri and Mississippi rivers continue to rise, with an increase in the latter's expected crest.

Officials also said in the post that those living to the west of Highway 67 to "reconsider evacuation NOW."

"Both of the Levee Systems will have water to the very tops of the Levees," officials said in the post. "Right now, our area is at the highest risk that we can be. With the amount of water on both Levee Systems, the risk of possible failure increases."

Updated May 4 at 4:30 p.m. with I-44 reopening and Valley Park announcement - Missouri Department of Transportation officials reopened westbound Interstate 44 Thursday afternoon before the evening rush hour. Eastbound lanes between I-270 and Gray Summit remain closed. The 20-mile stretch of highway was shut down on Tuesday when flooding from the Meramec River caused problems.

Also on Thursday afternoon, Valley Park Mayor Michael Pennise announced that the city's evacuation order would be lifted at 8 a.m. on Friday, allowing residents to return to their homes. While the Meramec has receded at Valley Park, Pennise said that a second crest is expected, though it will be lower than the near-record set earlier this week. Pennise said the city will continue to monitor the river level. 

Updated May 4 at noon with updated information - Interstate 55 was reopened in south St. Louis County on Thursday morning, once it became clear that the Meramec River was receding there. That allows traffic between St. Louis and Jefferson counties to resume.

The Missouri Department of Transportation said westbound I-44, which has been closed between I-270 and Gray Summit since Tuesday would reopen Thursday afternoon before evening rush hour. There's no word on when the eastbound lanes will be open to traffic.

Valley Park officials on Thursday said that the "protected area" that was under a mandatory evacuation is still closed. In a letter, Mayor Michael Pennise said that city officials would err on the side of caution and not allow re-entry to the area yet. He said there's no indication that the levee protecting the city has been compromised or breached in any way.

Updated May 3 at noon with updated road closure information - Missouri Department of Transportation officials have closed southbound Interstate 55 at Butler Hill Road due to Meramec River flooding, cutting off access between St. Louis and Jefferson counties. Northbound I-55 is expected to close before the afternoon rush hour on Wednesday.

MoDOT Area Engineer Karen Yeomans told St. Louis Public Radio it will probably remain closed at least until Friday.

Find all of the latest road closures here

"We'll get it as open as quickly as we can. But, you know, once the water recedes, we have to check for any damage — inspect the bridge, to make sure there wasn't any damage to the bridge," Yeomans said. "So, as soon as we can get things open. we will have them open."

MoDot says that for now Lemay Ferry and Telegraph Roads remain open, though traffic on the south St. Louis County roadways is expected to be restricted.

Meanwhile, Yeomans says the I-44 shutdown between I-270 and Gray Summit will continue for several more days.

"I expect that it's going to be through this week that I-44 will be closed. And Route 141 will likely be closed through the weekend. So, that one's going to take a while for it to get through everything.”

Original story from May 2:

More major roads are closing, due to flooding in south and west St. Louis County this week. A spokesman for the Missouri Department of Transportation said MoDOT would shut down Interstate 55, Telegraph Road and Lemay Ferry Road at the Meramec River Tuesday night, as the waterway continues rising.

I-55 is expected to stay closed the rest of the week. That has forced the Lindbergh and Melhville school districts to cancel classes on Wednesday. The Rockwood school district will remain closed for at least another day on Wednesday, as well. 

MoDOT officials also said Route 21/Tesson Ferry Road at the Meramec and Route 141 at Romaine Creek would close Tuesday afternoon. 

Interstate 44 between I-270 and Highway 100 remains closed, in addition to Highway 141 at I-44 and Gravois Road at the Meramec River.  

MoDOT District Engineer Greg Horn says 2.5 inches of rain are forecast to fall between Tuesday evening and Thursday and the earliest that some roads could reopen is by Friday morning rush hour.

“It looks to me like, with this rain coming in, it’s going to prolong the floods, so it could be as much [time] as this weekend. So you need to be prepared for having Highway 44 closed down this weekend.”

"You need to be prepared for having Highway 44 closed down this weekend ..." — MoDOT District Engineer Greg Horn

Horn says it will be virtually impossible to cross from one side of the Meramec to the other until the water starts to recede.

"You all are going to have to decide what side of the river you want to be on tonight, because you're not going to be able to get back and forth," he said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

In Illinois, US 50 at Silver Creek between O'Fallon and Lebanon in St. Clair County remains closed. The Brussels Ferry in Grafton is also closed.

Ongoing flooding

Heavy rainfall over the weekend has inundated several communities along the river, which is forecast to crest at record levels at Eureka and near-records at Pacific, Valley Park and Fenton on Wednesday. 

According to Mark Diedrich,  St. Louis County’s emergency management agency director, roughly 200 homes have been flooded so far and 1,500 more are threatened in Eureka, Valley Park, Fenton, Sunset Hills, and unincorporated areas along the Meramec River watershed.  

Several neighborhoods have been cut off by flood waters, he said, but are not in danger of flooding. 

Hundreds of volunteers turned out over the last few days to try to save homes and buildings in these areas, including about 200,000 sandbags filled and given out in Eureka. That town's Eureka Fire Department said Tuesday it does not need any more volunteers. 

Summer Smith, 15, helps neighbors fill sandbags to protect their homes from floodwaters Tuesday morning at the Starling Mobile Home Community in Arnold. (May 2, 2017)
Credit Carolina Hidalog / St Louis Public Radio
St Louis Public Radio
Summer Smith, 15, helps neighbors fill sandbags to protect their homes from floodwaters Tuesday morning at the Starling Mobile Home Community in Arnold.

Disrupting travel

At least one area health care institution has had to make special arrangements as a result of the road closures.

"For our employees who wish to stay tonight and also tomorrow, we have sleeping accommodations," said spokeswoman Lulu Liang of the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System.

Liang said the systems two medical center sites in mid-town St. Louis and at Jefferson Barracks in south St. Louis County are fully operational.

"Basically all the clinical work – nurses, doctors, social workers, case workers – are required to be on site," she said, "and if some of them are unable to come we will always have coverage."

As of Tuesday afternoon, Liang did not have a count of how many employees planned to stay and use the sleeping accommodations. She said officials will continue to assess the road situation and its impact on staff in the coming days. But Liang also said many veterans have called to reschedule appointments because it's unsafe to travel. 
Meanwhile, the flooded caused the suspension of Amtrak rail services across Missouri. MoDOT's Kristi Jamison said passengers who already have tickets to travel between St. Louis and Kansas City will be bused instead, and they should expect delays. 
Follow Joseph Leahy on Twitter: @joemikeleahy

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Wayne is the morning newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.

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