What is in this article?:
- Farmers in the floodway face uncertain future
- Employees seek refuge
In late April and early May, heavy rains pumped the Mississippi River to levels not seen since the 1937 flood, backwater crept into 100-year flood plains and scores of tornados swept across the Mid-South.
During the chaos, one news item took us back — a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announcement that it was taking steps to intentionally blast the top of a levee in southeast Missouri.
The opening of the Birds Point — New Madrid Floodway would save a town, at the expense of prime cropland in the floodway. Here’s how the story unfolded.
Employees seek refuge
Meanwhile Story’s employees, several of whom live in the floodway, have found refuge with friends and relatives. One, Story says, “was lucky enough to find an apartment for rent.”
Kevin Mainord, a farmer and mayor of the small town of East Prairie, Mo., just outside the floodway, lost 400 acres of corn and 450 acres of wheat when the spillway opened. The day after, he surveyed the floodway by air.
Mainord doesn’t think water from the spillway rushed in with as much force as the Corps anticipated, which might reduce some scouring of the land. “There’ll be quite a bit of erosion within 3 miles of the fuse plug in the north part of the spillway. But it’s probably too soon to know for sure.”
Mainord said that over the years, millions of dollars and countless man hours have been spent putting fields to grade, installing center pivots and improving drainage in the floodway, which is designated as Consolidated Drainage District No. 1.
Mainord and Story, who is president of the drainage district, tried repeatedly to convince the Corps that blowing the levee was unnecessary. “The floodwall at Cairo was designed to withstand 64 feet on its gage,” Story said. “The crest was never predicted to go over 63 feet. So why did they have to do it?
“It’s almost like they had a toy and wanted to see if it still worked. Now they’re going to have to spend millions of dollars to rebuild the levee in addition to the millions they spent blowing it up. I don’t know if it’s job security or what.”
Eighteen hours after the levee was blown, the river stage at Cairo had dropped by only 1.64 feet, about half of what was expected. Over the next three days, it dropped an additional 0.7 foot and appeared to be leveling off.
On May 2, hours before the floodway was opened, Story and other farmers waited in a tent erected on top of the Birds Point levee. Maj. Gen. Walsh entered and told the group the news. The floodway would be “operated” that evening.
Story told Walsh that the last time the floodway was opened, in 1937, the stage at Cairo dropped only 0.2. “He barked at me that I was misinformed. As it turned out, I was wrong. It was actually 0.4.”
After the announcement, Story didn’t stick around for the opening of the floodway. “I just went home.”
So did Mainord, who farms 5,200 acres within the floodway. “For one thing, I wasn’t interested in being a spectator. I just couldn’t stomach it, to be honest.”
When asked if he had the resolve to farm in the floodway again, Story said, “I should probably reserve that judgment for when the water goes down, and I can see what I’m looking at, but I don’t think I have a lot of options. You have to do what you have to do. That’s farming. That’s what farmers do.”