Midwesterners eye rising rivers; snow cancels hundreds of flights at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport

Published 10:02 pm Friday, March 21, 2008

DUTCHTOWN, Mo. (AP) — Flood-weary residents in Missouri, Arkansas and Ohio fought to save their homes Friday after heavy rainstorms pushed swollen rivers out of their banks, and a fresh snowstorm blew through parts of the Upper Midwest, canceling flights and some Good Friday services.

Along the Meramec River in eastern Missouri, residents of Valley Park hoped the town’s $49 million earthen levee, built in 2005 to withstand a 100-year flood, would pass its first big test. The surging Meramec was expected to crest at a record 40 feet on Saturday — 24 feet above flood stage.

The Army Corps of Engineers and Missouri Public Safety said the levee was in good shape, but some residents decided to leave for higher ground just in case.

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‘‘The biggest thing is not knowing what to expect,’’ said Donna Gerstein-Russell, who moved to the area in January.

Heavy snow fell or was expected from Minnesota to Ohio. Milwaukee got 14 inches Friday and 10 inches fell in Red Wing, Minn.

The timing of the storm was disappointing for dozens of Wisconsin church officials who decided to cancel Good Friday services.

‘‘It was a hard decision but for the safety of everybody, especially of the elderly, we think it was prudent to make this decision,’’ said the Rev. Jonathan Jacobs of Ascension Lutheran Church in Milwaukee. ‘‘Most people are grateful — they say they would have been torn otherwise.’’

Snow forced the cancellation of more than 450 flights and delayed numerous others at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, one of the world’s busiest. Many flights were also canceled at Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Michigan, where up to 12 inches of snow was expected in areas.

Northern Ohio residents prepared for an expected 3 to 6 inches of snow, while flood victims in the southern parts of the state began the arduous task of cleaning up after some of the heaviest rain in years.

A blizzard warning remained in effect in northern Maine, where fierce winds scattered snow, uprooted trees and brought down power lines.

‘‘Even though it was spring yesterday, we still have winter on our doorstep,’’ spokeswoman Ginny Joles of Maine Public Service Co., northern Maine’s major electric company, said Friday.

Parts of the Midwest got a foot of rain over a 36-hour period this week, causing widespread flash flooding. The worst flooding happened in smaller rivers across the nation’s midsection. Major channels such as the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio rivers saw only minor flooding.

In Arkansas, residents of the tiny prairie community of Georgetown along the White River were warned to leave the area Friday after forecasters said a backwater slough would cut off access by late evening and leave them stranded well into next week.

‘‘Stock up or get out. You may be there a few days,’’ said Steve Bays, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service at North Little Rock.

Georgetown Fire Chief Eddie Stephenson said about half the town’s 126 residents were getting out, but he played down any danger.

‘‘I’ve been here all my life. We’ve been through this for years and years and years. It don’t get us excited. We just take it as it goes,’’ said the 65-year-old Stephenson, who also is a city councilman.

Rivers receded Friday in Ohio, but several areas remained under flood warnings. About 60 state roads were closed or partly blocked by flooding; crews were trying to pump water off a major route into Columbus, according to the State Highway Patrol.

In Missouri, eyes were on the levee in Park Valley. With nearly one-third of the town’s 6,500 residents at risk if the levee breaks or is overtopped, authorities were taking no chances. They set up a staging area full of rescue trucks and a boat in a school parking lot near the town, said Chesterfield Fire Department Capt. Steve Smith.

‘‘They were a little uneasy about the levee, if it was going to hang in there or not,’’ Smith said.

Army Corps of Engineers spokesman George Stringham said some water had seeped through the levee, but the leakage was not unusual and posed no danger to the levee’s structural integrity. He said the Corps expects the levee to hold throughout the weekend as flood waters are expected to crest at 40 feet, which is below the top of the levee.

‘‘We’re 100 percent confident with how it’s working out out there,’’ Stringham said.

Maj. Byron Medloch of the Salvation Army said that 1,000 people displaced by the Meramec were housed in shelters. Another 1,000 had been in shelters near Poplar Bluff in far southeast Missouri, where the surging Black River breached several levees, though Medloch said many began returning home on Friday.

‘‘People are tired,’’ Medloch said. ‘‘Tired of fighting and tired of waiting.’’

Dutchtown residents picked through belongings and pumped water from flooded homes a day after the small town was evacuated and covered by 3 feet of water.

In Fenton, a St. Louis suburb, dozens of volunteers filled sandbags and piled them against downtown businesses near the fast-rising Meramec, which was expected to reach more than 20 feet above flood stage in some spots.

‘‘The river is continuing to come up,’’ Mayor Dennis Hancock said. ‘‘It continues to come up rapidly.’’

Government forecasters warned that some flooding could continue in the coming days because of record rainfall and melting snow pack across much of the Midwest and Northeast.

At least 16 deaths have been linked to the weather over the past few days, and at least two people whose vehicles were swept away by rushing water Tuesday were still missing in Arkansas.