Up from the Flood in Southeast Missouri

[imgbelt img=floodedsilos530.jpg]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.



The Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway just south of the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in Southeast Missouri. Cairo, Illinois, and Fulton County, Kentucky, lie just east of the floodway.

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.

G.D. Fronabarger

Crews searched by boat for people marooned in the floodway after its first activation, January 28, 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.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Once the levee was breached, water filled the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway, to depths of 20 feet in some spots, May 3, 2011. The Ohio River at Cairo, IL, had reached a record level of 61.72 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.

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.

The Missourian

Because their growth cycle is short, soybeans (shown here last October 24) were planted in mid-July after the floodwaters receded from the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway. Farmers managed a fair crop.

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.

New York Times

Farmer Milus Wallace suffered $2 million in damage at his farm and will be only partially reiumbursed by insurance.

“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.