Flood wall

Mark Gremaud (center), president of the Bois Brule Levee and Drainage District, lends a hand as Missouri Department of Transportation workers erect the temporary flood wall at the base of the Horse Island Chute Bridge on Hwy. 51 Sunday. The bridge connects Hwy. 51 to the Chester Bridge, the only Mississippi River crossing between St. Louis and Cape Girardeau.

The Chester Bridge was shut down Sunday for the third time in six years in response to rising water levels in the Mississippi River.

As of Wednesday, it was unclear exactly how long that situation will remain.

According to Perry County Emergency Management director Tom Grayson, who spent most of the past week monitoring the situation at the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency in Jefferson City, the situation remains very fluid.

“Even when the river recedes down below the road,” Grayson said, “it’s going to have to stay closed for a while because the water has to get below the girders so the inspector can come out an insect the bridge to make sure nothing shifted during the high water. It’ll be a little while before that happens.”

The closure comes at the base of the Horse Island Chute Bridge, which connects Hwy. 51 to the Chester Bridge at the northern tip of Perry County. The highway cuts through the levee, meaning that in order to close the levee with the temporary floodwall, the road must also be closed, cutting off access to the bridge.

The closing was originally planned for June 1, but was postponed until Sunday morning.

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According to Nicole Thieret, communications manager for MoDOT’s Southeast District, the extra day came as the result of a levee breach upstream.

“There were changes in conditions and the river level, and we feel very fortunate that we were able to keep the bridge open overnight,” Thieret told the Republic-Monitor on Saturday.

As for the state of the levee, Grayson said everything looks good.

“We’re supposed to crest at 46 feet Friday,” Grayson said. “The levee looks good, no sand boils or anything. It’s rated at 50 feet, so we’re still sitting pretty good.”

Mark Gremaud, president of the Bois Brule Levee and Drainage District, who’s been inspecting the levee regularly, agreed, but said he’s still keeping a sharp eye on the situation.

“So far, we don’t have any issues with the levee,” Gremaud said. “We’ve got area that we’re going to pull water over, like we did in 2015-2016 and 2017, just to err on the side of caution. It’s all about staying ahead of it. It’s easier to take care of [problems] before they get big than let them get big and try to handle it.”

“We’re taking it day-to-day and watching the crest and the rainfall. Hopefully it doesn’t materialize in the amount that they’re predicting.”

Perry County was put under a severe thunderstorm watch on Tuesday, and more rain is predicted on Friday and Saturday for much of the area, which could further complicate matters, as could rainy weather to the north.

“It’s looking a lot like 1993,” Gremaud said.

That year, the river crested at 49.7 feet — still a record at the Chester gage — and much of the bottoms was left under water. Flooding caused more than $15 billion in damages to towns and homes throughout the Midwest and claimed 32 lives.

Since that time, the Chester Bridge has only been closed three times for flooding, but all three came in the past six years, in 2015, 2017 and this year.

“It’s actually been closed four out of the past five years,” Gremaud said, “because the 2015 event ran over into 2016.”

In 2015, the river was expected to crest even higher than 1993, but levee breaks upstream relieved some of the pressure. Points downstream still saw record crests, but at the Chester gage, the river crested on Jan. 1, 2016 at 45.99 feet, nearly 4 feet below the predicted level.

In 2017, the last time the bridge was closed, the river crested at 44.66 feet, just below the predicted crest of 45 feet, which is the mark used by MoDOT when making the decision to close the bridge.

Away from the bridge, flooding in the county isn’t terrible at this point, Grayson said, especially considering the problems flooding is causing in other parts of the state, particularly along the Missouri River.

“Compared to everyone else, and with our levee situation and everything, I think we’re still looking pretty good right now,” Grayson said, adding that any damage estimates would have to wait until floodwaters recede.

MoDOT has closed portions of Hwy. A near Wittenburg, Hwy. C at Menfro, and part of Hwy. E, stretching from PCR 322 to just past PCR 354. Perry County road department supervisor Mark Hoehn said his department has closed portions of nearly a dozen county roads, mostly in the east end and St. Mary areas, including PCRs 340, 350, 351, 430, 438, 444, 446, 458, 460, 830 and 950.

“It’s not too bad right now,” Hoehn said.

Part of the reason for that is likely because of actions taken in Ste. Genevieve County, where “Farmer’s Levee” was opened to allow flood waters to expand into “Big Field” and relieve pressure there, resulting in an extra day before the bridge was closed.

“The Corps of Engineers seems to think that is part of the reason,” Grayson said.

That gave area residents — and businesses — some extra time to make preparations.

“We just don’t want to shut it down without really needing to shut it down,” Grayson said.

According to data collected during a recent Environmental Impact Study related to the possibility of replacing the nearly 80-year-old bridge, more than 6,700 vehicles travel across the Chester Bridge each day, ranging from tractor-trailers and farm equipment to passenger vehicles.

The Chester Bridge is the only Mississippi River crossing between the Jefferson Barracks Bridge in St. Louis, more than an hour away, and the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge in Cape Girardeau, nearly 40 miles to the south.

Making things worse, flooding in Illinois resulted in the closure of part of Hwy. 3 north of Jackson County, Ill., nearly two weeks ago, cutting off the most direct route to Cape Girardeau from the Illinois side.

Among those hardest hit the bridge closure are two of Perry County’s major employers, auto parts manufacturer TG Missouri and food service manufacturer Gilster-Mary Lee.

TG Missouri senior general manager Fred Ducharme said his operation has more than 200 employees who live in Illinois, while Chester-based Gilster-Mary Lee operates a number of facilities on both sides of the river. Both rely on the bridge, not only for allowing workers easy access to their jobs, but also for distribution of their products.

 “We plan on giving [those employees] a per diem allowance for each day the bridge is closed,” Ducharme said, “because they will be driving approximately 115 miles one way.”

Ducharme said the per diem would allow those workers to pay for gas if they choose to travel back and forth by alternate routes or to stay in a hotel during the closure.

He also said that he doesn’t feel the closure would severely affect TG’s product delivery schedule.

“It will affect them because they’ll go south or north,” Ducharme said, “which a lot of them do right now. We’ve already addressed it with all of our suppliers and also with our customers.”

Gilster president and CEO Don Welge did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment, but stated in 2017 that the bridge closure cost his company “thousands of dollars a day.”

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