Flash Floods Swamp St. Louis Area, Breaking a Century-Old Rain Record

Just three days ago, the River Des Peres, which carries storm water from the city of St. Louis, was “almost bone dry,” the city’s fire chief said, as Missouri experienced what the governor called increasingly dry conditions and the growing threat of serious drought.

Then came record rainfall early Tuesday, drenching parts of St. Louis and other areas of Missouri with up to a foot of rain that quickly transformed interstates and neighborhood streets into roaring rivers that collapsed roofs and forced residents to flee their homes in inflatable boats.

While officials worked to assess the full scope of the damage, Chief Dennis M. Jenkerson of the St. Louis Fire Department said at a news conference on Tuesday that one person who had been pulled from a flooded vehicle had died. There was about 8.5 feet of water in the area, he said.

Firefighters had helped or rescued about 70 residents, he said. Property damage was “very significant” in some hard-hit areas, he said, including one in the southwestern part of the city where 14 or 15 homes had experienced “significant flooding.”

“We’ve had a tremendous amount of cars that have been door-deep and also roof-deep in some of these low-lying areas,” Chief Jenkerson said.

“Now, we’re seeing the weight of the water cause some issues with buildings. We’re having some partial roof collapses. Some of the vacant buildings are also suffering from the stress of this water.”

The flash flooding was only the latest entry in what seemed to be an unceasing onslaught of extreme weather disasters, with ferocious wildfires, punishing heat waves, crippling droughts and deadly floods in the United States and across the globe.

While a variety of factors contribute to flooding, researchers expect that, as the climate warms, flash floods will increase and get “flashier,” meaning their duration will shorten as their magnitude increases. Severe flash floods can be more dangerous and destructive.

Tuesday’s flood showed that St. Louis’s storm systems were already “under exorbitant stress” from development, said Derek Hoeferlin, an associate professor and chair of the landscape architecture and urban design programs at Washington University in St. Louis.