Near-historic flood levels expected over the weekend, next week

After bands of extreme weather made a push this week across Missouri, major rivers are expected to bring near-historic flood levels to the St. Louis area over the weekend and into next week.

Downtown, the Mississippi River may climb to its fourth- or fifth-highest level since records began in the 1700s. Based on observations from the U.S. Geological Survey, government forecasts late Friday projected a crest of about 41.9 feet — nearly 12 feet above flood stage. That would fall less than a couple inches shy of the crest seen in April 1785 that currently stands as the fourth-highest in the record books.

Rising floodwater already prompted a number of warnings in the region this week.

On Wednesday, officials in Lincoln County, about 45 miles northwest of St. Louis, issued a warning to residents of certain flood-prone areas, urging them “in the strongest possible terms to evacuate.” Already locked in a grueling flood fight that has lasted through the spring, portions of the area are now particularly vulnerable, after a local levee was overtopped and breached earlier this month.

And on Thursday, the Coast Guard issued a notice closing portions of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers near St. Louis to all vessels because of extremely high water and fast moving currents.

Just three weeks ago, another crest registered as the seventh-highest recorded in St. Louis. And preliminary data from a crest in early April stands as No. 20 on the list.

But this spring’s flooding not only stands out for the heights that rivers have reached, but also for the sheer duration spent at flood stage. That presents its own danger, even where levees have not been overtopped or breached.

“The longer the river’s been up on them, the more saturated they become,” said John Osterhage, chief of emergency management for the St. Louis District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “They’re more vulnerable to having issues.”

The ongoing stretch of flooding is approaching historic territory — rivaling the remarkable duration seen during the Great Flood of 1993. That year, the area saw the Mississippi River at or above flood stage for 146 days total, including a streak of 98 days in a row, according to the National Weather Service.

2019 is joining the conversation.

“We are looking at the current string of 70 consecutive days, counting today, with the river above flood stage at St. Louis,” said Mark Fuchs, a senior service hydrologist for the St. Louis forecast office of the National Weather Service. “So we still have about a month to go or so to break the ’93 record as far as that goes, but that’s certainly possible.”

And looking ahead, it might happen. Based on the latest forecasts and projections for rain in the basin, Fuchs thinks the river is a lock to stay above flood stage at least into mid- or late-June — if not longer.

“The fact that we’re even discussing the possibility is noteworthy,” Fuchs added in an email. “Since we don’t really keep records on this type of statistic, I can’t tell you how this compares with other long-lived events (like 1973), but I suspect this might already be the second-longest stretch of flooding in St. Louis’ history.”

Officially, the second-highest crest ever in St. Louis occurred in 1973.

In recent years, more frequent major floods have become commonplace throughout the region — often earning descriptions as “100-year” or even “500-year” events, based on the likelihood of those floods occurring naturally.

But the timing is increasingly unnatural. At St. Louis, for instance, six of the nine highest river crests recorded have happened since 1993, and four of those have occurred since 2013, not including the crest materializing this weekend. The past decade has also been characterized by a series of major floods just upstream, along the Missouri River.

“Every teenager has seen a Methuselah’s lifespan of flooding,” said Bob Criss, a professor at Washington University’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, speaking last month to a group of environmental journalists.

Of course, he and others suggest that it’s not simply a remarkable streak of bad luck.

Climate change is one contributor to flood risk, since it raises the likelihood of extreme precipitation. But land use and the widespread reliance on levee systems are also factors that play a role — increasing runoff from things like paved surfaces and constricting rivers, instead of allowing high water to spread across natural floodplains.

Criss blames constriction from levees for making major rivers so sensitive to fairly typical doses of precipitation.

“It’s a recurrent tragedy and it’s one that is avoidable,” said Criss. “We have to recognize that the river does need more room.”

Two drowning victims recovered Recent flooding appeared to have claimed the lives of a Hazelwood man and woman who had been reported missing on May 14.

On Friday, the bodies of John Reinhardt, 20, and Caitlin Frangel, 19, were discovered in a car and recovered by the Missouri Highway Patrol, according to Trooper Dallas Thompson. The vehicle appeared to have been driven into floodwater and there was no sign of foul play at the scene near 1550 Harbor Drive in Portage Des Sioux, officials said.

The two died of drowning, according to autopsies performed Friday, Thompson said. Toxicology results are pending.