ST. LOUIS - A rare winter flood pushed swollen rivers and streams to virtually unheard-of heights Tuesday, sparking widespread evacuations and the transfer of inmates from an Illinois state prison as Missouri's governor activated the National Guard to help divert traffic away from submerged roads.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said water from the rising Mississippi River and its tributaries threatened to spill over 19 federal levees, putting hundreds of homes in jeopardy.
Record flooding was projected in some Mississippi River towns after several days of torrential rain that caused sewage to flow unfiltered into waterways.
The Meramec River near St. Louis was expected to get to more than 3 feet above the previous record by late this week.
At least 18 deaths in Missouri and Illinois were blamed on flooding, mostly involving vehicles that drove onto swamped roadways.
The river on Tuesday spilled over the top of the levee at West Alton, Mo., about 20 miles north of St. Louis.
Mayor William Richter ordered any of the town's approximate 520 residents who had not already evacuated to get out of harm's way.
In another eastern Missouri town, Union, water from the Bourbeuse River reached the roofs of a McDonald's, QuikTrip and several other businesses. The river reached an all-time high Tuesday, nearly 20 feet above flood stage.
Interstate 44 was closed near the central Missouri town of Rolla, and a 10-mile section of Interstate 70 was shut down in southern Illinois before it was reopened late Tuesday afternoon. Hundreds of smaller roads and highways were also closed across the two states, and flood warnings were in effect.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon activated the National Guard to assist with security in evacuated areas and to help keep road closure sites clear.
In southern Illinois, the Department of Corrections transferred an unspecified number of inmates from a state prison to other locations because of flooding risks. The facility houses nearly 3,700 inmates.
In St. Louis, more than 500 volunteers turned out in blustery, cold conditions to fill sandbags where a flooded waterway threatened hundreds of homes.
The city later trucked 1,500 of the sandbags south to a nearby county to fortify a wastewater treatment plant threatened by the swollen Big River.
The Mississippi River is expected to reach nearly 15 feet above flood stage on Thursday at St. Louis, which would be the second-worst flood on record, behind only the devastating 1993 flood.