ST. LOUIS — STANDING at a long folding table in the basement of the Edmundson Road Baptist Church, Vic Keitel and other volunteers place white bread in rows, stacking them with bologna and cheese. It's a long day for these volunteers, who by nightfall will have made 1,575 sandwiches, barely enough to feed a multitude of sandbag crews and stranded flood victims.
A very wet spring and early summer had saturated the ground in the Mississippi Valley here, one reason for the current disaster already dubbed "The Flood of the Century." Forecasters call for the Mississippi at St. Louis to crest Saturday at 45 ft., 15 ft. above flood level and nearly 2 ft. above the 1973 record.
As the Mississippi River over-topped its levies, forcing the retreat of sandbaggers, thousands of people have been ordered to evacuate parts of low-lying St. Charles County. In communities all along the Mississippi alone, damage is expected to be $500 million to $1 billion. Across the region, 19 deaths are blamed on flood waters.
Through steady rain and rush-hour traffic on I-270, Paula Elias drives 1 of 10 Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicles (ERV) to the first feeding station, a patch of high ground on the Meramec River in South St. Louis County. She is one of more than 300 Red Cross volunteer disaster specialists who have come from all over the country to assist with food relief. She finds it fitting that they have been quartered in the Noah's Ark Best Western.
"What we're doing is as much for morale as it is for hunger," she says. "These people been putting up with this for - what? - three months now, and it may go on another two months. So I think we're here to feed their spirits and their bodies."
At the first site, an overpass spanning the Meramec River at Lemay Township, folks wait in the rain beside their boats. Some 40 feet behind them, in the river, a red stop sign is all but submerged. "We were just getting ready to leave," a bearded man in a poncho says. "Didn't think y'all were coming."
This is only the second day of meal delivery and the ERV is almost an hour late due to rain, traffic, and a faulty defroster that necessitated a cargo transfer at the last minute. As chili, sandwiches, chips, fruit, and juice pass through the window, the recipients describe their situation.
"Everything is wet, soaked," Ed Nichols says. "There must be six or seven feet of water in my living room." He sums up the situation as "miserable, unforgiving."
Lance Chimento, a car mechanic, nods in the direction of the river basin. "There's a whole mess of people down there underwater. I'm bringing everything up here [higher ground]. My Monte Carlo's going to be my living room."
Wally Turpin, in better times a landscaper, talks about putting his things on the roof of his house in nearby Willow Reach. "It might get rained on," he says, "but it won't get waterlogged."
Indeed, the main concern among these river residents is not so much getting food or a dry place to sleep, but keeping their possessions safe. Already the road leading up from the river is lined with cars filled with belongings transported by boat.
News reporters are rife with stories of people who will not evacuate when ordered to do so. They don't want to leave their possessions. St. Louis County Executive George "Buzz" Westfall issued evacuation orders but said he would not force anyone to evacuate unless their lives were in peril. "These are adults," Mr. Westfall said, "they have to decide what's best for them."
As the ERV pulls away, heading back to the Edmundson Road Baptist Church, the rain starts up again. "This is going to make it worse for those poor people," says Leanna Horn, a volunteer. Folks wave to the truck. The volunteers wave back.