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For farmers, the levee breach 'is history now,' but they struggle with how to 'move on'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 5, 2011 - SIKESTON - Jack Feezor gazed at a white rooftop just visible in the distance -- across the brackish flow of river water that now runs over Highway D in the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.

"It's history now. We move on," he said quietly as a handful of local residents took in the sights and sounds from this dry stretch of two-lane pavement at the edge of life as they've known it.

The rooftop is on Feezor's now-flooded property in Mississippi County in the Missouri Bootheel -- "a dab" of acreage, he called it -- that has been in his family for three-quarters of a century. From this vantage point, he estimated that at least 4 feet of water now flows over his land in the northwestern section of the floodway.

The farm, which includes two houses, a machine shop and grain bins, had been dry until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers detonated explosions in a section of the levee Monday night to alleviate record flooding in Cairo, Ill., and other towns near the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

"We don't know what it's going to do to the property," he said.

Feezor was born on this ground and grew up here. He and his wife Ruth Ann lived on the farm for 25 years before moving to nearby Charleston, where he serves in city government. Feezor said they have no insurance against flooding. He is one of 25 farmers in Mississippi County who filed suit Tuesday against the corps' action. The suit disputes that the corps has proper easements in the floodway.

Road Closed

On Wednesday, residents of Southeast Missouri formed steady streams to the barricades that have been erected on the gravel and paved roadways that traverse the floodway.

Older residents shared stories of working this farmland -- 130,000 acres of the richest, most fertile acreage in the Midwest, they'll tell you. Young parents brought their children for a glimpse of history: The floodway hadn't been "activated" since 1937.

Near East Prairie, Highway 80 now merges with the river, just east of the setback levee that borders the floodway. Spectators were kept west of an orange line painted on the pavement by soldiers of the Missouri Army National Guard stationed at the spot.

Spc. Sean Gibson of the 1175th Military Police based in St. Clair, Mo., said he has been on duty on 80 East for the past week, most of it in the rain. He was thankful that the sun was finally out.

Gibson said that he had observed water in the floodway, even before the corps breached the levee. He said that some property owners have been upset because they are not allowed to get into the area, even by boat.

Gibson, who served in Haiti after the earthquake, said that it is a different experience to be called to duty in his home state.

"These people are Americans, and it hits a little closer to home," he said. "They come here and visit with us most everyday since the levee's been blown. They've been real good to us, and we hope that we can do what we can for them."

The floodway is part of a project developed by the corps of engineers after flooding devastated the region in 1927. On Monday night, engineers detonated the first of three planned explosions to breach the levee, which extends from Birds Point to New Madrid. A second explosion followed on Tuesday, but the third breach was postponed until Thursday afternoon.

The corps estimates that it will take 45 to 60 days for water to recede from the floodway, depending on additional rainfall. It will take another 21 to 30 days for the land to dry out, before the cleanup of debris and sediment can begin.

Pam Phillips, a part-time rural mail carrier whose route runs through the floodway, said she is upset by the emphasis placed on the farmland. She delivers to about 30 or 40 families who live in the flooded area.

"These are our friends," she said, her voice choking with tears. "This is not just about the farmland. People live here. They've grown up here."

'This is a Heritage'

The impact of the flooding reaches beyond the farmers and families who own property in the affected area, say local residents. They also worry about wildlife that may have perished; the floodway is home to the Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area and Big Oak Tree State Park, the state park system's only Cyprus swamp.

"This is a heritage for people," said Phillips.

Barbara Pope of East Prairie, who sold her family's property in the floodway several years ago, said she still has a personal attachment to the land she grew up on.

After World War II, she said her father was among the farmers who began buying acreage in the spillway and who "built these farms from nothing."

Pope said the property owners always knew that the corps could activate the floodway.

"But you never think it's going to happen," she said, as she surveyed the floodwaters from Highway 80.

Pope tried not to cry as she talked about watching her parents' hard work wash away, but she felt that the corps had little choice.

"There was a lot of controversy about the decision to blow this levee, but it was the right thing to do because if they hadn't, the levees up north were under so much pressure that they were probably going to burst," she said.

She fears that flooding could have then occurred in towns along the west side of the setback levee.

"It's sad," she said. "I know it's just land, but I feel sorry for everybody who's lost their homes and their livelihoods."

Shannon Henderson, 41, who said she has lived in East Prairie all of her life, said the situation is sad for everyone involved.

She and her husband Johnny are fighting a different kind of flooding -- the runoff from recent record rains -- at their business, J and S Truck Repair, at the intersection of Interstate 55 and Highway 80.

"I feel for the sorry for the people in Cairo who are losing their homes to the flood right now," Henderson said. "I feel sorry for the farmers in Charleston and Mississippi County. I know it is farm ground, but it is how they make a living each and every day."

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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