After a formal request from Gov. Jay Nixon Saturday morning, President Barack Obama has signed an emergency declaration for the state of Missouri.
Nixon asked for the declaration to get federal help removing flood debris.
“The work is not over,” said Nixon Saturday afternoon during a news conference in Eureka. Pointing to a makeshift drop-off point for flood debris, he added, “Behind me you see just a tiny fraction of the trail of destruction that the raging flood water has left.”
Nixon said the federal emergency declaration will activate a U.S. Army Corps of Engineer debris removal program and give homeowners and businesses a quick and safe way to get rid of water-logged refrigerators, ruined carpeting and soaked drywall. He said thousands of homes and hundreds of businesses need help removing debris after being damaged by the floods.
“If you can get your debris to the curb, our plan is that it would be picked up and removed from there,” Nixon said.
Nixon, who is from Jefferson County, said it’s been hard to believe the reach of this historic flood.
“I mean when you’re seeing 55 closed. When you’re seeing a house — a full house that’s floating into the highway 30 bridge and blowing up — it’s almost as if you’re living on some other planet,” said Nixon.
Earlier Saturday, Nixon stopped by Cape Girardeau, where the river crested Friday at nearly 49 feet — almost half a foot higher than the previous record made in 1993.
After touring parts of the Metro East on New Year’s Day, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner spent Saturday touring towns in danger of flooding along the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. He told reporters the five levee breaches along the Mississippi River Friday night were the worst he’s seen. The breaches flooded mostly agricultural land in Alexander County and, according to Gov. Nixon, helped reduce the flooding in Cape Girardeau.
At least 22 deaths have been attributed to the floods in Missouri and Illinois as of Saturday, mostly caused by attempting to drive through floodwaters.
In response to flooding in Alexander County, Ill., the Red Cross set up a shelter at Shawnee Community College in nearby Ullin. Anyone seeking disaster assistance can call 314-516-2700.
For towns upriver, many residents are coming home and turning their attention to cleanup, while local emergency responders assess the damage. Early damage estimates include 1,000 structures flooded in St. Louis County, 138 residences damaged in Arnold and about 350 people displaced in the Pacific area. A total account of the destruction is scheduled to be sent to the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Monday.
After re-opening all interstates, including I-44 and I-55 on Friday, the Missouri Department of Transportation announced Saturday evening that Route 141 is now clear as well.
In West Alton, floodwaters covered much of the farmland that sits at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Highway 67 allowed traffic to flow in one direction only, and a smattering of gas stations opened for business.
“This store used to be busy, nonstop. Now it’s slow,” said Mahmmod Itayem, a clerk at a Mobil gas station just off the highway. He said they cleared out the gas pumps and moved their inventory, expecting the worst. But in the end, the station stayed above the water, and he and his uncle were able to reopen on Saturday.
“That’s what we’re doing right now — put everything back where it was,” Itayem said. “It will come back up. That’s what I believe.”
Lifelong resident Shawn Lovell, whose house is on higher ground in West Alton, spent the day in the backyard with his family. Their view, typically a long expanse of verdant farmland, is now an icy lake, with trees and farmhouse rooftops poking out of the water. The area is no stranger to floods, but Lovell sees two unique characteristics to this one: the flood was entirely due to local rainfall, and the levees didn’t break.
“The river just overtopped the levies and that’s all. So it’s going to take a lot longer for the water to get out, and with it going into winter, that could cause some problems,” Lovell said.
Though much of the town is still underwater, Lovell said he has no plans to leave. It’s home.
“I’ve seen every flood since the one that happened here in 1979,” Lovell said. “With each of us individual families, it’s just one of those things you weigh your pros and cons. And the peacefulness, and togetherness of the community just outweighs the risk we run when we have to deal with things like floods.”
The Mississippi is predicted to fall below flood levels near Alton on Saturday, Jan. 9.
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