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Deadly, rare winter flood slams Missouri

Submerged roads and houses are seen after several days of heavy rain led to flooding, in an aerial view over Union, Missouri December 29, 2015.

REUTERS

Last Updated Dec 29, 2015 4:21 PM EST

ST. LOUIS - A deadly, rare winter flood shut down portions of two interstates on Tuesday, threatened hundreds of homes and caused sewage to flow unfiltered into waterways.

"Now that the rain has moved out, the threat has now changed, but it is not by any means over, especially for communities along the rising Mississippi river and its tributaries here in the St. Louis region," Governor Jay Nixon told the media on Tuesday afternoon.

Thirteen flood-related deaths have now been confirmed in Missouri, with 12 deaths occurring in vehicles caught in the flood waters.

"We expect most rivers to crest in the next few days," Nixon said. It is expected that Franklin County, where homes are already flooded, the water level may rise 5 to 6 more feet before the river crests. Perry County and West Alton County are also expected to continue to be hit hard by rising water levels.

The flooding has been part of a series of unusual and deadly storms that have hit the country since Christmas. At least 48 people have been killed in that time by weather-related events, from twisters and blizzards in Texas to torrential rains in the Southeast.

The National Guard was called in to assist with flood-fighting efforts, Nixon said Tuesday afternoon. He said guard members will be used to assist first responders in providing security in evacuated areas, and to help direct traffic away from road closures.

He said that the number of troops called up will be in the hundreds, but said the details will be worked out later in the evening.

One major detour where troops will be directing traffic includes a 30 mile stretch near Jerome, Nixon said.

Roads are closed in nearly 500 locations across the state.

He urged motorists to stay away from roads with even low levels of water because fast-moving current can push cars and trucks off the roadway. Most flood related deaths in Missouri are attributed to motorists caught in flood waters.

The river on Tuesday spilled over the top of the levee at West Alton, Missouri, about 20 miles north of St. Louis. Mayor William Richter ordered any of the town's approximate 520 residents who had not already evacuated to get out of harm's way.

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Floodwaters are expected to crest on Thursday, and Governor Jay Nixon said some areas could see water rise 5 to 6 feet.
CBSNews.com

Torrential rains over the past several days pushed already swollen rivers and streams to virtually unheard-of heights in parts of Missouri and Illinois. The Mississippi River is expected to crest at record levels in some areas south of St. Louis later this week.

The river on Tuesday spilled over the top of the levee at West Alton, Missouri, about 20 miles north of St. Louis. Mayor William Richter ordered any of the town's approximate 520 residents who had not already evacuated to get out of harm's way.

Interstate 44 was closed near the central Missouri town of Rolla, and a section of Interstate 70 was shut down in southern Illinois. Hundreds of smaller roads and highways were also closed across the two states, and flood warnings were in effect.

In St. Louis, more than 100 volunteers turned out in blustery, cold conditions to fill sandbags where a flooded waterway threatened hundreds of homes. By Tuesday afternoon, Nixon said St. Louis had such a large number of volunteers that he believed their efforts would protect the city from the rising waters.

The River Des Peres is a man-made storm sewer channel that flows through south St. Louis into the Mississippi River, a few miles south of the Anheuser-Busch brewery. The channel is deep enough that flooding isn't a concern under normal conditions.

But there is nothing normal about this December flood.

The Mississippi River is expected to reach nearly 15 feet above flood stage on Thursday at St. Louis, which would be the second-worst flood on record, behind only the devastating 1993 flood.

Maureen Hooch, 57, volunteered to fill sandbags in the heat of that July 1993 flood. She was back at it Tuesday in St. Louis.

"The last time I was out here it was 1,000 degrees," Hooch recalled. "They had a bus you could get on to cool off. I prefer the cold. When you work, you warm up."

Alderman Larry Arnowitz said up to 500 homes could be threatened if the River Des Peres rises much more than projected. He was confident that with no rain in the forecast for the next several days - and with the help of the thousands of sandbags - everything would be OK.

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Governor Nixon told the media on Tuesday afternoon that lives and property are a priority as the state works to mitigate damage caused by flood waters that continue to rise and are expected to crest on Thursday.
CBSNews.com

But Lisa Muxo, 45, said her basement was already taking on water.

"These are our neighbors, our friends," said Muxo, who brought her teenage son and three of his friends to help sandbag. "We need to help each other."

The high water was blamed on the shutdown of a wastewater treatment plant on Monday just south of St. Louis, causing sewage to go directly into nearby rivers and streams. The Metropolitan Sewer District of St. Louis said the Fenton wastewater treatment plant, which is designed for 6.75 million gallons per day of flow, was treating nearly 24 million gallons per day at the time of the malfunction.

One of the two wastewater plants in Springfield, Missouri, also failed, allowing partially treated sewage to flow into a river.

In central and southern Illinois, flood warnings were in effect a day after a winter storm brought sleet and icy rain. Major flooding was occurring along the Kankakee, Illinois, Sangamon and Vermilion rivers.

An Illinois prison with nearly 3,700 inmates was preparing for possible flooding from the Mississippi River on Tuesday. Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman Nicole Wilson says that employees and emergency work crews at the Menard Correctional Center near Chester are filling sandbags and "working around the clock."

The maximum security prison is on lockdown, and visits have been suspended. Officials also anticipate having to bring in hundreds of portable toilets in case the prison's water service is shut down.

The Midwest wasn't alone. Heavy rain continued in parts of the South, such as Georgia and eastern Alabama, which has in parts seen more than 14 inches of rain since Dec. 21.