Some drought-starved Midwestern rivers that had been near record low levels were on the verge of flooding Wednesday, after storms dumped up to 3 inches of rain on some parts of the region.
Forecasters said rivers would see a dramatic, if temporary, rise over the next few days, with some waterways expected to swell by as much as 15 feet. Even the Mississippi River is expected to rise by up to 10 feet in areas between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill. Although the Mississippi will remain far below flood stage, several smaller rivers are expected to spill over their banks.
"Just the fact that we're in a drought and talking about flooding is pretty amazing," said Mark Fuchs, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service office in suburban St. Louis.
Storms Tuesday and Wednesday brought high winds, hail and tornadoes to parts of the Midwest and South. Thousands lost power and one death was reported in Tennessee.
It was part of a strange weather pattern. Consider Missouri: On Tuesday, while Kansas City was dealing with blowing snow and a winter weather advisory, golfers in St. Louis were teeing off in 68-degree temperatures and joggers in Columbia were marveling at a record high of 77 degrees.
By late afternoon Tuesday, though, a cold front began clashing with that unseasonably warm air and strong storms brought downpours. Most of the St. Louis area got around an inch-and-a-half of rain; parts of southern Missouri and southern Illinois got closer to 3 inches of rain.
Smaller waterways rose sharply. The weather service expects minor flooding at the Big River near Richwoods, Mo., the Meramec River at Sullivan, Mo., on the Little Wabash River near Effingham and Clay City in Illinois, and on the Kankaskia River at Vandalia, Ill. Several smaller rivers in Indiana also were approaching flood stage.
Fuchs said flood damage would likely be minimal.
"There could be some small county roads that go under but nothing out of the ordinary," he said.
The January downpour brought welcome relief for bigger rivers, including the middle Mississippi, where barge traffic has been threatened for nearly three months because the river is so low.
By late Wednesday morning, the river level at St. Louis had risen nearly 2 feet and was expected to rise at least 5 feet more by Monday before gradually declining. Still, with spring rains just weeks away, there was growing optimism that further restrictions on barge traffic may not be necessary.
The Coast Guard has for several weeks limited the draft of barges — that is, the portion of a barge that is submerged — to 9 feet. In normal conditions, drafts are 12 feet. The reduction means lighter and more frequent loads, costing the industry millions of dollars.
But the Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers have worked together to make sure the river remains open to traffic, work that has included the removal of rock pinnacles near Thebes, Ill., about 120 miles south of St. Louis. That work has wrapped up and rock removal began this week at another Mississippi River trouble spot at Grand Tower, Ill., about 90 miles south of St. Louis.
"The Grand Tower project will yield permanent improvements to the Mississippi," Col. Chris Hall, commander of the St. Louis District for the Corps of Engineers, said in a news release.
The rock removal at Grand Tower will force closure of the river from midnight to noon for about the next 10 days, the corps said.