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Reservoir Break Causes Flood in Southern Missouri


Just before dawn yesterday morning in southeastern Missouri, the wall around a mountaintop reservoir gave way. More than a billion gallons of water roared down the mountain. It swept away the home of the park superintendent who lived below. Jerry and Lisa Toops and their three young children were carried off in the flood. They all survived. The children remain in pediatric intensive care, one in critical condition. The reservoir is owned by the energy company AmerenUE. It's part of a hydroelectric system. The company says the flood resulted when an automatic pumping system didn't shut off and allowed too much water into the reservoir. Ben Meredith is chief of the Fire Department in Lesterville, Missouri.

And, Mr. Meredith, can you tell us, please, when you got to the scene yesterday morning what you saw?

Chief BEN MEREDITH (Lesterville Fire Department): When we arrived on the scene, the road was completely covered in mud and debris. There was a couple tractor trailers that had been washed off the road that was in the fields. There was one individual on top of one of them that got out of his truck.

BLOCK: And did you know that you were looking for a family whose home had been destroyed?

Chief MEREDITH: We knew that the home had been destroyed, but we was not for sure, you know, if the family was in there because we had no way of telling. All that was left of the house was the foundation. None of their vehicles was around. It washed everything away.

BLOCK: Well, how do you find the Toops family then?

Chief MEREDITH: One of my firefighters located the truck driver that was on top of his and he notified him that he heard somebody yelling, and then you could hear the individual--the father--yelling for help. And he was in a cedar tree across the highway from the house, probably about 4 or 500 yards from where the house used to be.

BLOCK: In other words, the water had carried him up into the tree?

Chief MEREDITH: Yes.

BLOCK: Goodness. And what about the mother and the children?

Chief MEREDITH: They had located the mother and the children at the back of the field, probably another 5, 600 yards from where they found the father.

BLOCK: And the children, I believe, are five and three years old, and then a seven-month-old baby.

Chief MEREDITH: Yes.

BLOCK: What kind of condition were they in?

Chief MEREDITH: At that time, the mother, father and all three children were in hypothermia. The mother and father could both speak a little--enough to answer our questions--enough--what we needed to know. You know, all the kids were still in their sleeping clothes. The dad--he didn't have any clothes. You know, they had no idea this was coming. And when that busted, it was emptying 1.4 million gallons a minute is what was coming out of there.

BLOCK: This is a state park. I suppose if this had been summertime, there would have been a lot more people down there.

Chief MEREDITH: Yes. On any given weekend, you're talking anywhere between 1,500 to 2,000 people in that campground.

BLOCK: In the summer?

Chief MEREDITH: Yes.

BLOCK: I've seen pictures of this reservoir, 55 acres of water. It's just a huge thing. And it now shows just this complete washout of the mountain below. Was this a source of concern for you, that something like this might happen?

Chief MEREDITH: No. We have an emergency plan for that, and we practice it every year. But it's not something I thought I'd ever see in my lifetime, honestly. I mean, it's just not something that we were concerned about.

BLOCK: It must have been quite a feeling to realize that you had everybody accounted for and that they were all alive.

Chief MEREDITH: Yes, it was, and at that point, once we realized all--you know, it was good up there, then we initiated an evacuation for the town of Lesterville, because Lesterville's downriver from that facility, and all of that water was working its way downriver. And we evacuated probably 200 people from Lesterville. And there's a lower lake below that power plant, and they pump the water back and forth from the lower lake to the reservoir. And that lower lake is designed to hold all of the water from that upper reservoir if there is a break. And thank God it done its job yesterday.

BLOCK: It could have been a lot worse.

Chief MEREDITH: Yes. Yeah, it could have been a whole lot worse.

BLOCK: Chief Meredith, thanks very much for talking with us.

Chief MEREDITH: No problem.

BLOCK: Ben Meredith is chief of the fire department in Lesterville, Missouri.

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.