HAZELWOOD, Mo. — Camila Cage woke to the sound of her phone rumbling on her nightstand early Tuesday, its glow piercing the darkness as a severe weather advisory pops up on the screen.
“I just thought it was normal,” the 31-year-old said. “You know, a normal severe thunderstorm warning. I didn’t think it’s going to be this bad.”
Cage groggily slipped out of bed around 5:30 a.m. after thinking she may be late to work when she felt the rumbling of a heavy storm, heard the rush of water behind her bed and moisture beneath her feet.
As she stepped down into her apartment living room, the sound of running water grew louder, and she quickly saw water was flooding her apartment.
“I just immediately scream — ‘no, my car!’ — then I looked out the bedroom window and yes the cars were completely covered,” Cage said. Then she noticed the water start to creep through her apartment — the bathroom, her bedroom, her daughter’s bedroom, the dining room and the living room.
Cage quickly put her contacts in. Then she rushed outside, banged on her neighbors’ doors and tried not to look back.
Thunderstorms poured more rain on the St. Louis region on Tuesday than had ever been recorded in a single day. In just six hours, St. Louis got more precipitation than what would be normal for the entire months of July and August combined.
First responders later described a chaotic morning responding to more than 70 calls for help from people stranded in their cars and homes. Floodwaters covered major roads, surged over Interstate 70 and damaged countless homes. At least one person died in a car submerged near Skinker Boulevard and Enright Avenue.
The Hazelwood and Spanish Lake fire departments and the Missouri Department of Conservation rescued hundreds of residents from the Reserve at Winding Creek Apartments in Hazelwood after severe flooding.
Coldwater Creek runs behind the complex, and Hazelwood Fire Chief Dave Herman said if it rains a lot in a short period of time it isn’t unusual for the creek to flood. But on Tuesday the creek had broken its boundaries with more water than a typical storm. “I’ve never seen it this bad,” he said.
Missouri Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones and St. Louis County Executive Sam Page declared states of emergency to allow those affected by the storms to qualify for government aid.
U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis County, called on Missouri Gov. Mike Parson to formally ask the Biden administration to declare an emergency in the region so Missourians could also qualify for federal aid.
Nearly 50 people at the Richmond Heights Community Center’s emergency shelter on Tuesday evening lost their homes.
“It’s something we don’t want to talk about because it hurts us all,” said 66-year-old Em Valley, who rushed from her University City apartment on Tuesday. “We need help, some of us are homeless now. We don’t have anywhere to stay — we lost everything again.”
Sharon Watson, regional communications director for the American Red Cross of Missouri and Arkansas, said the nonprofit organization would help residents with shelter, food, clothing and other needs.
“Flash flooding like this, this is very unusual — very quick, and certainly something that I think caught a lot of people by surprise, unfortunately,” Watson said, adding that the Richmond Heights Community Center was being turned into an overnight shelter.
The unprecedented flooding has overwhelmed residents and city officials alike. Cage said it took about five hours for rescuers to reach her by boat. First responders worked for nearly 12 hours to rescue hundreds of trapped residents.
John Wagner, director of planning and development for University City, walked into the packed emergency shelter to tell some residents they couldn’t return to their buildings because they had been condemned.
As Cage listened to the announcement, she said she didn’t know whether her apartment would be condemned. She asked a friend to call the complex’s management to ask why the property manager waited until 4 a.m. to contact residents by email and ask them to move their cars — the only official notification of the flooding.
She expects the complex’s first-floor apartments to be condemned because the local housing authority asked everyone to leave. “At that point, mold, mildew and all of those types of things are going to start to set in so I’m [asking] what is going to happen to us?” she said.
Shortly after rushing from her building, Cage ran back into her apartment to salvage more of her belongings but “couldn’t think straight” as the waters rose past her knees and toward her waist. But, there was one thing clearly on her mind — Heaven’s upcoming fifth birthday.
“I know I need something, but I couldn’t think straight so I put some of her birthday decorations up a little higher,” she said. “I’m like ‘OK, that’s all I can think of because my baby’s birthday is important to me.’”
Heaven said she hopes she can celebrate her fifth birthday, but Cage said she doesn’t know if that will be a possibility after thumbing through her renter’s insurance policy and realizing it didn’t include flood insurance.
“I know one thing for sure, we won’t be going back because the flood’s damaged everything and the whole apartment is damaged,” she said. “I do need to go back and see exactly what I can salvage.”
Cage said the lived experience has brought her neighbors and those in the region closer in a time of need.
“We’re all trying to be supportive to one another,” she said. “They were being so lovely to us. We were all just talking, you know as a community, and that was really the first time I got to know my neighbors.”
Cage said volunteers have offered clothing, food and toiletries. Late Tuesday, she and her daughter went to stay with a family member.
Cage and others who went to the shelter want to know why their apartments flooded and hope no one else has to go through such a harrowing experience.
“I never thought that this would be a possibility where it would be this bad,” Cage said of the flooding. “I would love to have answers on why this happened, we all would.”
St. Louis-area residents in need of shelter or assistance following flooding can call the American Red Cross at 1-800-733-2767. St. Louis Public Radio’s Kate Grumke contributed to this report. Brian Munoz is a staff photojournalist and multimedia reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his work on Instagram and Twitter at @brianmmunoz.