A decision to breach a levee last spring brought floodwaters down on 200 square miles of SE Missouri. After a full year, some people are still displaced, others are farming again, and everyone has an opinion about the Corps of Engineers' fateful choice.
On the morning of May 2, 2011, the swath of southeast Missouri along the Mississippi River, from the mouth of the Ohio south to the Kentucky Bend, was rich, productive cropland, saturated by the wettest April on record.
What a difference a day makes. By the morning of May 3, 2011, the region had become an artificial lake, 20 feet deep in places. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had blasted open the mainline levee outside Cairo, Illinois, activating the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway. While neighbors to the east and north breathed sighs of relief, many who farmed or lived within the 130,000 acre floodway felt the breath knocked out of them. When, if ever, could they return to their land and to life as they had known it?
But what a difference a whole year makes. As of May 3, 2012, the Corps has rebuilt most of the mainline levee to a height of 55 feet and plans to restore it to its previous height of 62.5 feet within the year. A project to clear the sediment from 108 miles of drainage ditches is in progress.
Despite well-founded fears that flood-borne pollution, silt, and erosion might render the land unfit for cultivation for years to come, farmers managed to plant soybeans just weeks after the water receded. According to Sam Arnett, director of the New Madrid County University of Missouri Extension, they produced a harvest that would have been considered average, even under normal circumstances.
To be sure, the land and people continue to experience repercussions and will for quite some time. Much eroded land remains to be restored, and large sand deposits make other land inaccessible. The community of Pinhook, sadly ruined by its submersion, has yet to be rebuilt. Some landowners and public officials are frustrated by the pace at which federal agencies are funding or carrying out reconstruction work and by the red tape involved.
The activation of the floodway and its aftermath remain subjects of contention on Capitol Hill and in courtrooms, regional newspapers, and online social media forums.
Still, many experts and commentators concur with the Corps’ assessment that the floodway functioned mostly as intended and that its activation largely achieved its goals. Landowners have expressed gratitude that the recovery has already progressed much further than they expected. Winter wheat and corn are growing. Indeed, according to Missouri Farmer Today, an estimated 95 percent of the land that was in production before the flood is now back in production.
Authorized by the 1928 Flood Control Act in response to the catastrophic 1927 flood, the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway was constructed in the early 1930s. Its purpose is to divert water from the main channel of the Mississippi during extreme floods, alleviating pressure on levees along the lower Ohio and middle Mississippi (and, preemptively, on those along the lower Mississippi) and reducing the danger that adjacent land will be flooded.
The floodway is bounded on the east by the mainline levee, which extends from Birds Point 35 miles downstream to New Madrid, and on the west by a setback levee that intersects with the mainline levee at the north end. The levees almost adjoin at the south end also, but a 1,500-foot outflow gap separates them. The distance between the two levees at the floodway’s widest point is approximately 12 miles.
The floodway encompasses about 205 square miles, in Mississippi and New Madrid counties. About 70 households (235 people) resided within that area before the flood, according to Mississippi County presiding commissioner Carlin Bennett; most of the land was and remains occupied by corn, wheat, and soybean fields.
Thanks to exceptionally rich alluvial soil, Mississippi County has the highest level of soybean production and the largest average farm size in Missouri. Bennett said that the average farm within the floodway is approximately 800 to 1,200 acres, but operations range from small vegetable and melon patches to 10,000-acre farms.
The extension service’s Sam Arnett estimates that roughly half of the owners of cropland here farm it themselves and half rent their property to farmers. Much of the land has been handed down within families for several generations, but Bennett explained that in the past ten years, people from beyond the region have purchased acreage within the floodway as an investment.
When the water level reaches 60 feet on the gage at Cairo, Illinois, immediately north of the floodway, the Corps may opt to activate the floodway, pumping liquid explosives into pipes embedded within the mainline levee and detonating them. The Corps had opened the floodway only once before, in 1937.
In late April 2011, the rapid rise of both the Ohio and the Mississippi made it increasingly apparent that the Corps might choose to breach the levee a second time. Officials at all levels of government in Missouri worked vigorously to prevent it on behalf of constituents who were alarmed, dismayed, and angered by the prospect that their land and, in some cases, homes might be lost.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster filed a temporary restraining order on April 25 and argued the state’s case in U.S. District Court in Cape Girardeau three days later, but Judge Stephen Limbaugh, who counted potentially affected landowners among his friends, found in favor of the Corps and its Kentucky and Illinois supporters. Koster appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but Justice Samuel Alito concurred with Limbaugh.
Though some officials and some of his own colleagues within the Corps had urged Major General Walsh to activate the floodway sooner to reduce the risk to locations upstream on the Ohio and Mississippi – including Olive Branch, Illinois, which incurred severe damage – he waited until May 2 to order the breaching of the levee. By then, the Ohio had reached a record level of 61.72 feet at Cairo.
Crews worked amid late-evening lightning storms to load explosives in the river wall. The first detonation occurred shortly after 10 pm, producing a gap more than two miles wide near the north end. The Corps set off two additional explosions farther south on May 3. Because a sufficient quantity of explosives was not available, the second of the three detonations yielded a gap of only 800 feet. Consequently, water rushed into the floodway much more forcefully than intended, causing massive quantities of soil to be displaced and deposited elsewhere. Even so, the process otherwise went largely as expected. Two days later, the Ohio at Cairo had dropped by two feet.
Some media reports characterized the activation of the floodway as an effort to save Cairo, Illinois, an economically challenged, majority-black community whose flood-protection infrastructure showed signs of strain. When reporters asked Missouri House Speaker Steven Tilley (R-Perryville) whether he would prefer that Cairo or the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway be inundated, he replied with blunt remarks disparaging Cairo, for which he later apologized.
Spirited online debates suggested that the Corps’s alleged decision to spare Cairo at the expense of prosperous farmers in Missouri was actually a decision to spare itself from potential accusations of classism or racism.
The Corps emphasized, however, that activation of the floodway was intended to protect not just Cairo but flood-prone locations all along the middle and lower Mississippi and lower Ohio and to relieve pressure on several other levees. Representatives of the Corps asserted that the probable consequences of unintended levee failures elsewhere would have been far more costly than those of the intentional breaching. They estimated that the negative economic impact of the floodway activation would amount to several hundreds of millions of dollars, a figure consistent with current projections, whereas failure to activate the floodway might have resulted in damages exceeding $1 billion, as well as increased likelihood of loss of life.
Much of the land spared from catastrophic flooding – due at least in part to the floodway activation — was farmland, a fact that would seem to dispel any accusations of partiality toward townspeople. Furthermore, the town of Pinhook was a predominantly African American community, and its residents are among those who have suffered most, suggesting that partiality toward minorities was not likely a factor in the Corps’s decision-making.
The citizens of Pinhook have dispersed to other communities but remain in close contact and are actively seeking buyout funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency with assistance from the Bootheel Regional Planning and Economic Development Commission. They hope to relocate their community somewhere less flood-prone.
Many of the other residents of the floodway have relocated also, continuing a depopulation trend that has been ongoing for decades.
About a month after the floodway activation, Joe Barrett of the Wall Street Journal reported
that only a few farmers had begun any planting. Most were waiting for the Corps to build a temporary levee to protect their crops, and some expressed exasperation that the Corps seemed not to recognize the urgency of doing so.
Soybean planting got under way by the middle of July, however. Sam Arnett explained that because of the delay, many farmers chose to plant beans in fields where they ordinarily would have grown other crops; mid-July is late in the season even for bean planting. Nevertheless, Arnett estimated that about 70 percent of the land planted in soybeans achieved productivity approaching normal levels, owing partly to the persistence of high temperatures well into November.
Winter wheat was starting to grow when John Schwartz of the New York Times visited in January. Arnett then said that it looked as though yields might actually be above average this year, but a cool spell in April followed several weeks of unseasonably warm weather. Now, growers are experiencing a problem opposite what confronted them a year ago. Dry conditions have led many to take the rare step of irrigating their wheat fields.
The Food and Agricultural Research Policy Institute has estimated that crop losses resulting from the floodway activation totalled $85 million and that the negative economic repercussions from those losses totalled $156 million.
Although various federal programs, including the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Program and FEMA, have provided assistance to landowners, much of that assistance has involved risks and complications, according to Mississippi County commissioner Carlin Bennett.
He said that a friend whose property was eroded so badly in some places that it looked like a “moonscape” has been promised $400,000 from a federal agency to fund repairs. The money will not be provided up front, however. The landowner himself must initially pay for the work himself, necessitating that he obtain a loan; he will be reimbursed subsequently if the repairs pass an inspection.
Bennett also pointed out that much of the land located near but outside of the floodway also sustained significant damage during last spring’s flooding, but the owners of that land are not eligible for certain kinds of federal assistance.
A class-action lawsuit filed against the Corps by more than 140 owners of land within the floodway is under deliberation. Federal Claims Court Judge Nancy B. Firestone heard oral argument in the suit in Washington, DC, on April 10.
The members of Congress who represent residents and landowners in the floodway have kept issues surrounding the floodway activation in the public eye.
Senator Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) recently sent a letter to the acting commander of the Corps calling the pace of the levee reconstruction unacceptable and urging that it be expedited. During the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing regarding Lieutenant General Thomas Bostick’s nomination to become commander of the Corps, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) pressed Bostick for a definite commitment to rebuild the levee to its original height.
Representative Jo Ann Emerson (R-Cape Girardeau) recently commented, “It is very hard to get the Corps of Engineers to be what I consider forward-thinking. A better way of looking at it would be to have two or three alternatives to look at the precise moment when you have to make a decision.”
In 1987, her late husband and predecessor in office, Bill Emerson, successfully sought a resolution directing the Corps to study potential alternatives to activating the floodway, but the study concluded that none of the possible options would be justifiable economically.
While there is no question that many farmers and landowners within the floodway have taken a serious financial hit, Bennett said that he is not aware of anyone who has gone bankrupt or been forced to give up farming because of losses resulting from the levee breach. A variety of factors, including profits from last year’s soybean crop, property and crop insurance, federal assistance, and the willingness of local lending institutions to be accommodating seem to have enabled many local farmers to absorb or partially recoup their losses.
“Most farmers here bank with two or three local banks within our county, and they very much understand farming and the risks and benefits involved with it,” Bennett observed. “The good thing about farming is you can make enough to cover a big hit if conditions work out in your favor and prices are good enough.”
Fourth-generation farmer Eddie Marshall recently told Melissa Miller of the Southeast Missourian, “At the end of the year, we ended up with decent crops. The guy upstairs took care of us. Surprisingly enough, it turned out quite well.”
Similarly, farmer and agricultural services marketer Kevin Mainord remarked, “We were blessed in that our year was down as far as gross dollars, but we still had a pretty profitable year. I think most farmers would make the same statement.”
Although many people still experience the psychological effects of last year’s catastrophe, viewing any substantial downpour with a sense of foreboding — and although the citizens of Pinhook, in particular, continue to suffer from a serious injury to their lives and their community identity — the territory within the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway, remarkably, seems well on its way toward becoming once again what it was on the morning of May 2, 2011.
Matt Meacham teaches cultural anthropology at Southwestern Illinois College’s Granite City Campus. He notes that The Southeast Missourian has published an impressive series of
articles, photographs, and multimedia presentations about the flood of
2011, including coverage of the ongoing recovery effort.