Rare Winter Floods

Flooding in Cedar Rapids.  Photo via flickr.com under the Creative Commons license. https://www.flickr.com/photos/usgeologicalsurvey/2593478529

Flooding in Cedar Rapids. Photo via flickr.com under the Creative Commons license. https://www.flickr.com/photos/usgeologicalsurvey/2593478529

Flood waters take over the streets. Photo via Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons license. https://commons.wiki/wiki/File:1927_Mississippi_Flood_Oswego_Kansas.jpg


At a time of the year when both precipitation and the Mississippi River are typically well below a normal level, there could be record crests in some places along the river. Due to an unseasonably warm, wet, late fall and early winter, there has been higher than normal rainfall, causing the Mississippi and other rivers to be unusually high. St. Louis has received nearly 10 inches of rain in December, according to the National Weather Service. The winter flooding is strange and it could portend even worse problems in the spring depending on weather for the rest of the season.

Flooding has affected parts of Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana and has caused a total of 15 states to be under flood warning. There have already been about 400 reports of rivers flooding in the country. Three day rainfall totals of 9 to 11 inches were recorded in some parts of an area that stretched from southwest to east-central Missouri. Rainfall totals of that magnitude occur only every 100 to 300 years. In some places, the rainfall hasn’t stopped for weeks. Portland and Seattle have been drenched with rain every day in December. However, the United States isn’t alone. The United Kingdom and South America are dealing with their own massive flooding problems.

The Mississippi River tore through a levee in Thebes, Illinois, early Saturday, December 27, sending water rushing as far as 6 miles away from the usual banks. In the St. Louis area, the river crested Friday, and some residents returned home and began the painstaking process of surveying the damage, cleaning up, and salvaging whatever they could. Several thousand people were forced to evacuate or suffered damage to their homes, hundreds of businesses also sustained damage, and hundreds of water rescues were conducted.

The main culprit in the St. Louis region was the Meramec River, a small Mississippi tributary that devastated communities in the far south-western reaches of the St Louis suburbs. Two waste water treatment plants were so damaged by the floodwaters that raw sewage spewed into the river. Hundreds of people were evacuated in the Missouri communities of Pacific, Eureka, Valley Park, and Arnold, where many homes took in water. There have been an estimated 49 weather-related deaths in the past few weeks across the country, with the current severe storm system blamed for 35 deaths: 13 in Missouri, 11 in the Dallas area, five in southern Illinois, five in Oklahoma, and at least one in Georgia. Many died after their cars were swept away by floodwater.   President Obama recently signed a federal emergency declaration for Missouri that allows federal aid to be used to help state and local response efforts. It also allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief efforts. While the worst of the dangerous, deadly, winter flood is over in the St. Louis area, the water is slowly making its way south.

The rare winter flood is expected to bring major flooding to farther downstream in Memphis on the lower Mississippi, testing, but not breaking levees as the wave pushes toward the Gulf of Mexico during the next few weeks. The Mississippi is expected to reach a high of 44 feet in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Jan. 18: about 9 feet above the flood stage.