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Pinhook, Mo., residents will gather to share memories of a lost way of life in the floodway

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon - Former residents of Pinhook, Mo., will gather from near and far Saturday at the American Legion hall in Sikeston to share memories of the community they lost in May 2011 when the Army Corps of Engineers opened the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway to alleviate flooding on the Mississippi River.

"Pinhook Day" will reunite residents and also their family and friends who had moved away but used to return annually on Memorial Day weekend to the little village in Mississippi County that was founded by African-American farmers before World War II. Residents are still awaiting word on a proposed buyout from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Two years have gone by since they lost their homes, but Debra Tarver, village chairwoman, said residents still dream of rebuilding their community on land outside the floodway.

"It’s hard, but we are still hanging on to hope,’’ Tarver said.

Pinhook had about 30 residents at the time of the flooding, but she is expecting 100 to 300 people for the reunion. The gathering couldn’t be held at Pinhook because there is no running water or electricity in the ruined village, located about 35 miles from Sikeston. 

The all-day event will focus on shared memories and fellowship. And there will be prayer, Tarver said, including a gospel hour of songs they used to sing at their beloved Union Baptist Church that withstood the 10-foot wall of floodwater that surged through town but was later destroyed by fire.

"Two years later, we’re still in prayer, hoping that we will be given a chance to rebuild our village again,’’ Tarver said. “Our will is just as strong. We haven’t given up.’’

Tarver said she keeps in touch with the Bootheel Regional Planning and Economic Development Commission, which has been working with Pinhook on a voluntary buyout proposal that was submitted to FEMA through the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA). The buyout, estimated to cost $1.27 million, would include the purchase and demolition of 17 residential properties and two public properties. Property owners would be paid fair market value, minus any reimbursements they have already received from insurance or disaster funds.

Tarver, who has helped lead the efforts to relocate, said residents do not want to rebuild in Pinhook where they would live in fear that the floodway could be activated again. And they don’t want to deal with the annual backwater that seeps into the southern portion of the floodway through a gap in the levee system.

The waiting has been hard on residents, many of them older, who were displaced by the flooding and now live in nearby Bootheel towns, Tarver said.

"They’ve never given us a time frame,’’ she said. “You just have to wait. And with other tragedies happening in Missouri, they’ve been busy because they’ve got to go help those people, too.”

On May 2, the anniversary of the blowing of the levee, Tarver said she did what many Pinhook residents do to mark the day: She kept a silent vigil and prayed.

"You can’t give up on something you believe, and I believe God will make a way. I’ve never doubted him,’’ she said.

This weekend, Tarver will help her family and former neighbors do the cooking for the reunion: fried chicken and catfish, barbecue pork steaks and salads. And she has gathered old pictures of Pinhook to set on the tables and to decorate the walls. 

"It’s about the people getting the chance to see each other again,’’ she said.

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.