‘Major to Historic River Flooding’ Expected in Missouri After Deadly Storm

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Even if it doesn't rain another drop in Missouri, Kathy Wunderlich's home in West Alton may still get flooded.

Recent deluges have engulfed towns, homes, fields and roads in deadly floodwater. Though the storms are gone, the rivers have kept rising from Texas to Illinois.

In West Alton, runoff pushed the Mississippi River over the levees on Tuesday, and Wunderlich was headed for higher ground with her belongings in tow.

"We emptied out our basement of anything important, which is strictly storage anyway. We cleaned out the house of clothes. Things that can't be replaced. Important pieces of furniture," she told CNN affiliate KMOV.

400 gauges over flood stage

Though Wunderlich's situation appears acute, she is one of 17 million people nationwide that the National Weather Service said are living in areas where there are flood warnings.

Throughout the country's midsection, about 400 river gauges are over flood stage, with around 45 showing major flooding, the National Weather Service said.

Many of those are in or around St. Louis. Some rivers and streams have already crested, and some haven't yet, like the Mississippi. It is expected to reach its peak late Wednesday or early Thursday in Missouri along with other area streams.

Missouri will still have "major to historic river flooding through early next week," the National Weather Service's St. Louis office said. "Record crests expected on area rivers the next several days."

State of emergency

"We've never seen water this high," Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon told CNN's "New Day." "The Meramec River is going to be 4 feet over its historic level."

At its peak, the Mississippi should be at its highest level ever, Nixon said, beating the highest level of the great flood of 1993.

"That's why we've got a state of emergency," he said. But it is expected to drain off rapidly, so he is hopeful the cleanup phase will begin soon.

The town of Union is already moving into cleanup mode.

"The river crested (there) yesterday," said emergency manager Russell Ross. Floodwater has receded from a major highway there, but it is yet to be reopened, as it needs to be checked over.

Water creeping up the sandbags

Nixon has activated the National Guard to aid first responders and provide security in evacuated areas. And residents have volunteered by the dozens to fill sandbags and then pass them hand to hand to be transported or laid in place.

Late Tuesday, the Mississippi's waters were already creeping up the sandbags laid out to protect the town of Alton, Illinois, which lies across the river from West Alton, Missouri.

Downstream, in Illinois, a prison has been partially evacuated. Menard Correctional Center is on the banks of the Mississippi, and the staff anticipates minor flooding in some of its cells when the river crests.

Nearly 50 killed

Storms have been blamed for roughly 49 deaths this past week across the country. Thirteen died in Missouri, 11 in the Dallas area, five in southern Illinois, five in Oklahoma and at least one in Georgia.

Tornadoes are being blamed for most of the deaths in Texas.

But many of the rest died after their cars were swept away by floodwater, like five international soldiers temporarily stationed in Missouri for training.

Witnesses say that they drove onto a flooded road and rushing water carried them away.

Close calls

Others came close to suffering the same fate but escaped with their lives.

In Eureka, a man and his dog spent an entire night on his roof before emergency responders arrived on a boat and pulled them to safety Wednesday.

At one point during the rescue, the man lost his balance and fell into the water. He was being treated for possible hypothermia.

In Jefferson County, south of St. Louis, rescuers pulled a man from his car stuck in floodwaters, CNN affiliate KMOV reported. He said he had not seen the water, because it was dark.

In the same county, Shelia Seaman helped a friend move his things out of the way of rising water. Then they returned to get his dog. "It was too late," she told KMOV. "We couldn't get back across the water."

The friend took a boat to try to rescue the dog, but rushing water washed the boat away. The friend survived and Seaman was able to get in touch with him. There was no word on what happened to the dog.

Blame it on El Nino

At least 69 tornadoes have touched down in the United States in just the past week, said CNN meteorologist Pedram Javaheri.

"Typically, you see about 24 for the entire month of December," he said.

But flooding causes many more deaths in the United States than tornadoes do. And there have already been about 400 reports of rivers flooding in the country.

In some places, the rainfall hasn't stopped for weeks. Portland, Oregon, and Seattle have been drenched with rain every day in December, Javaheri said.

And the United States isn't alone. The United Kingdom and South America are dealing with their own massive flooding.

Blame it on El Nino, a warming of the eastern Pacific Ocean, mainly along the equator.

El Ninos occur every two to seven years in varying intensity, and the waters of the eastern Pacific can be up to 4 degrees Celsius (7 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than usual.

The phenomenon can cause more frequent and intense storms, as well as massive economic damage, as the major El Nino in 1997-1998 did.

The damage worldwide from that El Nino was estimated at $30 billion to $45 billion, Javaheri said.