ST. LOUIS -- As flood-weary towns near St. Louis began to regroup from record high water, Mississippi River communities farther south braced for the peak of flooding that has already damaged hundreds of homes and businesses and killed nearly two dozen people.
The water level on the Mississippi River was on the way down at St. Louis after reaching to within 7 1/2 feet of the 1993 record on Thursday. A floodwall protected the city, which had minimal damage. The Missouri River in eastern Missouri also was on the decline. The worst flooding was on the smaller Meramec River.
Four people were missing as a result of the deluge, two each in Missouri and Illinois.
Despite the falling water, transportation remained difficult around St. Louis. Part of Interstate 55 was closed south of the city; a 20-mile stretch of Interstate 44 was closed in the southwest suburbs. It wasn't certain when either would reopen. The Mississippi River was closed for a 5-mile stretch at St. Louis, idling barge traffic. Both Union Pacific and Amtrak suspended rail service in parts of the St. Louis area.
The worst of the damage was in Meramec River towns including Eureka, Valley Park and Arnold, all southwest of St. Louis, where the river reached more than 4 feet above the previous record at some spots. Hundreds of homes were damaged by high water and hundreds of others evacuated, along with dozens of businesses. Two wastewater plants were shut down - at Fenton and Valley Park - allowing raw sewage into the Meramec.
In Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, south of St. Louis, the Mississippi was still rising but there was good news: The crest forecast for late Friday or early Saturday, once expected to be a record, was now expected to fall about 2 feet short of the 1993 mark. Many downtown merchants had cleared out, just to be on the safe side, in case the levee gave way.
"We are breathing a bit easier," said Sandra Cabot, director of tourism for the historic French settlement that dates to the 18th century. "We are very confident in our levee. We've never been tested at this level before."
Other southern Missouri and Illinois towns were getting ready for the high-water mark. A record-tying crest was expected by the weekend in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, but a floodwall offers protection and is not considered endangered. Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers meet, seemed safe, despite a near-record crest prediction.
It appeared the Corps of Engineers would not need to blast a hole in the Birds Point waterway in southeast Missouri, as it did in 2011 to relieve pressure from the flood protection at nearby Cairo. The Corps said the intentional breach would be considered if the Ohio River reached 60 feet at Cairo, but the weather service projects it will top out at 57.5 feet on Sunday.
In Eureka, firefighters and their boats have been in high demand, accounting for roughly 100 rescues of people in their homes, businesses or vehicles since Tuesday, said Scott Barthelmass, a Eureka Fire Protection District spokesman.
Nine levees -- five on the Mississippi River, three on the Missouri and one on Illinois' Kaskaskia River -- were topped by water this week, but those earthen barriers protect farmland and otherwise unpopulated areas.