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Annual Bootheel festival goes on amid worries that a way of life has changed forever

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 5, 2011 - As a steamy Friday afternoon melted into a hot June weekend, residents of East Prairie — a town of 3,000 just outside the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway — gathered to welcome about 800 bicyclists who would ride through the surrounding countryside the next morning in an annual event dubbed the Tour de Corn.

While youngsters rode in a mini train that meandered about the festivities, grownups brought lawn chairs to Main Street and settled in to enjoy what organizers described as a "Pickin' and Grinnin'" street party. Bluegrass bands performed in the gazebo and booths offered a variety of good eats: barbecue pork, crawdads, "mountain" strawberry shortcake and gallons of cold sweet tea.

The town's 37th annual Sweet Corn Festival was a go on this last weekend in June, despite a trying spring that has already taken its place in Mississippi River history as the Great Flood of 2011. Because the festival's namesake crop had fallen victim to the flooding and record spring rains, sweet corn had been shipped in for the occasion.

Two months since the intentional levee breech at Birds Point by the Army Corps of Engineers, life remains far from normal for the folks who live and work in the floodway, says Kevin Mainord, the mayor of East Prairie.

The controversial action, which made national headlines, was designed to lower river levels at Cairo, Ill., and other places by flooding 130,000 acres of farmland in Missouri. The floodway covers 205 square miles of land — a narrow strip about 4 to 12 miles wide and 35 miles long that was developed by the Corps as part of its flood-control system on the lower Mississippi after the devastating flood of 1927. Before its activation this spring, the floodway had been used only once before: in 1937.

After a failed legal challenge by Missouri, the Corps ordered the floodway evacuated, and farmers scrambled to move equipment and livestock out of the floodway. The nighttime explosion on May 2 unleashed a deluge of river water that shattered structures, scoured holes in fields, washed out topsoil in some places and deposited thick layers of sand in others.

The University of Missouri's Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute has estimated the value of crop loss at $85 million this year, a figure that doesn't include the loss of property and damage to about 100 homes in the floodway.

"It's just been a devastating event for everyone associated with it here," said Mainord, who farms 2,800 acres of rented ground in the spillway.

Honoring the floodway farmers

The floodway's woes were given their due at the East Prairie festival, where local businesses and artists had been invited to sell their wares. In addition to the booths selling handcrafted items and jewelry fashioned from bicycle parts, one group sold T-shirts that proclaimed "I Survived the Historic Mississippi River Flood of 2011," with the proceeds going to benefit flood victims. Staffers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency had their own stand, where they passed out informational pamphlets on flood insurance and disaster preparedness.

The evening's program paid special tribute to elderly gentlemen of the spillway — well-known local icons who had been hit hard by the flooding. And on the gazebo was a sign, just big enough to not be missed, with a message spelled out in bright red letters: Honoring Our Heartland Home.

Below that declaration was a roll call of troubled spots in the spillway, places with descriptive names that few outsiders would recognize: Alfalfa Center, Big Oak, Boswell's Corner, Dorena, Hoecake, Mule Ridge, Sassafrass Ridge, Windyville.

Places that had drowned in river water for weeks after the Corps activated the floodway.

"It's not right," Mainord said. "If this had been an act of God, I think everybody could say, 'Hey, we just have to deal with it.' But it was an act of the federal government and an act of the Corps of Engineers. Water had not been in the spillway for 74 years. I know this was a historic event, but the Corps and the federal government could do the right thing and that's to help us put back the lives of the people that it washed away on May 2."

Mainord said the Tour de Corn and Sweet Corn Festival were a welcome diversion for East Prairie residents.

"It let us at least refocus about good things and about good times we've had in the past and not dwell on what happened in May of this year — and has been happening for the last six to eight weeks," he said.

He praised the volunteers who organize the bike tour — now in its 10th year — for providing a showcase for the Bootheel's agricultural industry. Bikers come from across the state and across the country to participate.

"It's a great way to showcase what rural Missouri has and can offer people from suburban Missouri," said Mainord.

At the same time, Mainord said he felt the town missed an opportunity to help people understand the impact of the government's actions in the spillway.

"I think they would be shocked, if they did take a close look at all the houses they passed by in the spillway," he said. "They're all uninhabited now and there's a good chance they never will be inhabited again especially if the federal government has its way with the restrictions they're attempting to place on the people who reside in the floodway."

Mainord said the floodway was not deemed a high-risk area for insurance purposes until after the corps blew up the levee.

"But now they are deeming it a high-risk area and imposing new restrictions on being able to build back," he said. "I don't think it's fair for the residents who have spent their entire lives there and made their livelihoods there. It's a travesty, and I think if we'd had time to show the bikers the many homes, empty and flood-ridden, that can't be inhabited and may never be inhabited again I think they would come away with a very sad outlook about what we've got to look forward to."

Mainord voiced a frustration common among floodway farmers: that the debate over breaching the levee was reduced to an argument about farmland vs. the people of Cairo.

"We would like for both of the communities to be saved," Mainord said. "I don't have anything against Cairo. I would love them just like I hope they would love us. We're not going to make this about one over the other. But we certainly don't think they should have been encouraging the Corps to blow the levee. I have no empirical evidence that what the Corps did, did anything to save the city of Cairo or anyone else."

The Big Question: Why did they live there?

In the June 21 edition of the East Prairie Eagle, an article titled "Forging Ahead" by Amy Sutton addressed the Big Question on the minds of Americans across the nation who heard about the floodway controversy on the nightly news.

"Through this historic and ever so documented event, national media (have) invaded the local coffee shops and haunts of the area residents," Sutton wrote. "Thousands of questions have been mulled over, but there is one resounding question: Why did they live and farm there, they knew it was a spillway?"

Sutton then detailed the birth of Mississippi County in the mid-1800s and how settlers were drawn to the rich soil that was excellent for growing corn, wheat and cotton.

The answer to the big question is simple, Sutton concluded: "It was farmland long before it was developed as a 'spillway.'"

Mainord's response is that the floodway hadn't been activated in 74 years — and that perhaps people should also stop building in California because that is a risky place.

"Let's tell people in San Francisco they shouldn't build their homes there because there are too many earthquake faults. When they have an earthquake there, it's going to destroy their houses and possibly injure people," he said.

Like many of the current floodway farmers, Mainord dismisses the amount of money farmers were compensated back in the day for "flowage rights" by the Corps.

"People were compensated three to five acres for flowage rights. It's of no consequence for the people who were affected by this flood," he said.

Questions regarding floodway easements and compensation for damage are at the heart of a lawsuit filed by floodway property owners against the Corps of Engineers. Mainord, who rents the acreage that he farms in the floodway, is not party to the suit.

Preparing for battle

Mainord, 54, said he was born across the river in Cairo but has lived in East Prairie all of his life.

Like many floodway farmers, Mainord said he lost his winter wheat crop, about 500 acres that was within six weeks of harvesting. He also lost 500 acres of corn.

"We had to move equipment out, which is a 12-mile trip. We had to empty diesel tanks and fill them with water. We lost every one of five rental houses for our tenants," he said.

Mainord said that he is fortunate because his acreage has dried out enough that he has been able to plant, though that is not the case with many of his floodway neighbors. And now he is holding his breath that the Corps will repair the levee breaches quickly, before the river rises.

"All I know to do is pray and hope that it won't rise to the level that it will cause a problem," he said.

Mainord said he was able to keep his seven employees on the payroll because he also farms acreage outside the floodway.

"Farmers invest millions of dollars in equipment and infrastructure to make a crop," he said. "It affected us in that we had planned to make a profit. We have to make our equipment payments, pay our employees. And now we're going to be doing good just to make ends meet at the end of the year."

Mainord, who is also a retail representative for an agricultural company that sells fertilizer, chemicals and seed, does business with floodway farmers. While he had crop insurance, he knows farmers who did not.

He said that many fear that the deck could be stacked against them if new regulations are imposed in the wake of the man-made flooding, such as building codes that would require homes to be rebuilt on cost-prohibitive pier-like structures similar to those found in coastal areas -- and the ability to buy flood insurance in what is now deemed as "high-risk" area.

"The farmers in this county should not be penalized over something they have no control over," Mainord said.

He said the levee breach came with other costs, as well. The flood devastated a tiny African-American community in the floodway called Pinhook that will probably not be rebuilt. Wildlife, including deer and wild turkey, was killed. Ancient Indian mounds were put at risk. And a thick layer of sand was deposited in Big Oak Tree State Park.

"We're going to be adamant about making sure that the Corps is responsible and does what we think it needs to do to make everyone whole again," Mainord said. "We're not going to let this issue drop. We're gonna be tenacious in our efforts to get the levee put back and to be able to get farmers back to doing what they do for a living. We just want the Corps to do the right thing."

Mainord dismisses plans being pushed by environmentalists that would turn the floodway into a river wetlands open to natural flooding.

"Farmers feed the world, and that's only going to get to be a bigger and bigger task every year as world populations increase," he said. "They want to take 130,000 acres of the richest farmland in the United States and open it back up to the river. It ain't gonna happen in my lifetime — not if we have anything to do with it."

June Sweet Corn Festival

People who attended the June Sweet Corn Festival in East Prairie, Mo., say the devastating spring flooding wasn't far from their thoughts.

"From what I see it's affected a lot of people, but we pulled together and got through to the other side," said Ronald Graviett of Sikeston, who designed this year's artwork for the Tour de Corn, a bicycle ride held in conjunction with the festival.

Missing this year was the local sweet corn crop that was washed away by the spring rains and flooding.

"We have more potatoes than anything else. We may have to change the name to the potato festival," joked Joe Helms of East Prairie.

Janet Ash and Jeff Hetrick sold T-shirts at the festival to raise money for flood relief.

"When we found out how many people were out of their houses, we wanted to make the shirts," said Ash who recalled watching footage of the Army Corps of Engineers blowing the Birds Point-New Madrid levee and feeling the force of the blast shake her house.

Silvey Barker, coordinator of the Tour de Corn, said proceeds from the festival and bike ride go directly to the community. But more important is the sense of normalcy, warmth and tradition that the festival offers in an extraordinarily abnormal time.

"It's very important to the community economically and emotionally. People of our community need it to go on as normal," she said.

— by Ryan Schuessler, Beacon intern

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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