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Many were stranded on roads when historic rains flooded St. Louis


At least one person has died in St. Louis as record-breaking rainstorms slammed that city early this morning. Rescue workers have been scrambling all day to reach those trapped in flooded cars and homes. Sarah Fentem of St. Louis Public Radio reports on the historic storm.

SARAH FENTEM, BYLINE: The rain started around midnight and just kept coming and coming and coming. As the sun rose on Tuesday morning, St. Louisans were able to see the extent of the overnight storms. The tops of cars and dumpsters peeked out of water as deep as a swimming pool. On Forest Park Parkway, one of the main thoroughfares through town, an abandoned bright blue city bus sat like an anchored pontoon boat on a lake. Nearby Buddha Poutthasith looked at his Toyota Corolla, stranded in the mucky water. He was driving in the rain before sunrise when his car became submerged.

BUDDHA POUTTHASITH: I just heard a big woosh and waves. And next thing you know, I'm in three, four feet of water.

FENTEM: He and his mother had to wade through the water to get to safety.

POUTTHASITH: It just hit me out of nowhere. I didn't really think much of it because usually when it rains this much like this, it doesn't really get flooded that bad.

FENTEM: Last night's flooding was indeed unprecedented, according to Jim Sieveking at the National Weather Service St. Louis office. More than a whopping eight inches was measured at St. Louis Airport in five hours. Some locations got close to 11 inches.

JIM SIEVEKING: The amount of rainfall that occurred last night between midnight and 5 a.m. pretty much broke the daily record for rainfall for any date.

FENTEM: The last record, 6.85 inches, was set in 1915. To put that in perspective, that year, the Panama Canal had just been built and soldiers were fighting in World War I. Sieveking says a super narrow band of thunderstorms gathered steam and hit the metro area with dead-on precision. In St. Louis, where the soil is made of clay, flash floods happen quickly. It runs off the soil just like water off a hard clay pot.

SIEVEKING: A lot of that rainfall ran off and went into these small streams, and those streams rose and, you know, flooded roadways and neighborhoods.

FENTEM: As of this afternoon, local emergency workers had responded to more than 70 flood-related rescue calls. Across the Mississippi River in Illinois, some residents in lower income neighborhoods have been experiencing backed up sewer and stormwater systems for decades. Yvette Lyles says she can smell sewage when her home floods during storms.

YVETTE LYLES: And every time this happens, my home is engulfed, and we have to go through all this massive cleaning out and throwing away stuff over and over. I'm tired, baby.

FENTEM: As rescues continue, meteorologists expect another inch of rain today, and more could come through the end of the week. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Fentem in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Fentem
Sarah Fentem reports on sickness and health as part of St. Louis Public Radio’s news team. She previously spent five years reporting for different NPR stations in Indiana, immersing herself deep, deep into an insurance policy beat from which she may never fully recover. A longitme NPR listener, she grew up hearing WQUB in Quincy, Illinois, which is now owned by STLPR. She lives in the Kingshighway Hills neighborhood, and in her spare time likes to watch old sitcoms, meticulously clean and organize her home and go on outdoor adventures with her fiancé Elliot. She has a cat, Lil Rock, and a dog, Ginger.