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Mississippi River's High Waters Flood Missouri and Southern Illinois Communities

Unusual winter weather and heavy rainfall have caused major flooding in Missouri and southern Illinois, leading to swollen rivers, voluntary evacuations and road closures. The governors of both states declared a state of emergency, and water levels on the Mississippi River shattered records.

Credit Marissanne Lewis-Thompson/KRCU
A nearby playground and building were flooded in Thebes, Illinois on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015.

Communities like Thebes, Illinois where roads, homes, cars and a nearby church were once visible, have now been consumed by the flood waters from the Mississippi River. Like many in southern Illinois and Missouri, major flooding hit Jimmie Monahan, pastor of the Apostolic Church of Thebes, Illinois hard last week. The church’s basement was flooded with about 4 feet of water. But to Monahan this is nothing new.

“Every place you can look used to be a house and all down here used to be houses, and they've all had to move out on account of floods,” Monahan said. “It keeps coming on. I had to move where I moved, because it got me three times in one year.”

Credit Marissanne Lewis-Thompson/KRCU
Jimmie Monahan, pastor of the Apostolic Church of Thebes Illinois, stands on the steps of his church as flood water rose on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015.

The Mississippi River’s high water broke records across Missouri and southern Illinois.Thebes broke its previous record on New Year’s Eve, and crested two days later at just under 48 feet. The National Weather Service predicts water levels will recede to about 38 feet on Thursday.

In Cape Girardeau, the Mississippi River broke its 1993 flood record on Jan.1, setting a record of nearly 49 feet the same day. By Jan.7, the weather service forecasts water levels will drop to about 40 feet. The reason for these high numbers? The Midwest got a lot of water in a short amount of time Army Corps of Engineers St. Louis District spokesperson Rene Poche said.

“What we're seeing that happened in the last week or two would occur over maybe a month, six week period in the spring,” Poche said.

And the lack of snow didn’t help. Poche said snow and ice could have acted as a potential barrier, giving the river enough time to flow.

“We didn't have that, because there's no snow,” Poche said. “It was just all this water came in at one time and hit the system.”

Unlike Thebes and Cape Girardeau, the Ohio River in Cairo, Illinois hit its peak at nearly 56 feet on Jan. 2 falling short of its historic record of 61.7 feet in 2011 when the Army Corps activated the Birds Point-New Madrid levee.

Frank Blakemore from  Alexander County Emergency Management said this time around the levees are “holding up.”

“They're having a little bit [of] a leakage issue down there, but nothing that can not be controlled,” Blakemore said. “Other than that everything right now is looking pretty good down in Cairo.”

But the same can’t be said for the Len Small Levee. The Mississippi River breached the non-federal levee in Alexander County on Friday. Poche said while it’s normal for a levee to be overtopped, it hits the danger zone when it’s breached.

“You never want to breach in a levee,” Poche said. “That's a catastrophic failure. Levees can and will be overtopped, and that's why it's important for residents to have a plan and listen to their local authorities regarding evacuation or whatever steps that may need to take to stay safe.”

Credit Marissanne Lewis-Thompson/KRCU
A flooded home in Olive Branch, Illinois on Friday, Jan. 1, 2016.

 In Olive Branch, Illinois floodwaters and sandbags were widespread, and a thin strip of road separated flooded houses from dry homes. Thebes resident Michael Whalen came to Olive Branch to help the community sandbag houses.

“Just trying to help the community out get prepared for the flood waters that seem to be inevitable,” Whalen said.

Since the Len Small levee breach on Friday, the flood waters have started to level themselves out, according to Alexander County Board Chairman Chalen Tatum.

“It’s still rising a little bit and drop a little bit and rise a little bit,” Tatum said. “So, it’s kind of almost leveled out. We decided with the dropping of the Mississippi River we decided to lift the evacuation notice effective 8 a.m. on Jan. 5.”

Flood waters are steadily falling as the crest continues to move down south, where they will eventually empty out into the Gulf of Mexico. But the rare winter flood put residents on high alert for what could be a wet spring.

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