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Back to the spillway: In Dorena, the breach of the levee swept away what time had spared

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 7, 2011 - The white steeple of the Dorena Baptist Church still stands tall against the blue Missouri sky, despite the flood-shattered condition of this beloved house of worship located in the southeastern section of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.

There will be no Sunday services here ever again, said the Rev. LeRoy Davenport, who served as pastor of the little Southern Baptist church on Highway 77 in Dorena.

"It is through. It will never be rebuilt," Davenport said.

The church, which was built in 1946, once had 100 members. But the congregation had dwindled to a faithful dozen in recent years, and all have found new churches since the flood, he said.

Judging from the water stains on the interior walls, Davenport estimates that the Mississippi River was about 10 feet deep here after the Army Corps of Engineers breached the levee at Birds Point on May 2 to alleviate flooding in Cairo, Ill., and other towns by inundating 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland.

The pressure from the surging river water buckled the church floor and bricks were torn from an exterior wall. Pews were set adrift, eventually coming to rest in an unruly pile, as the water receded. Fortunately, church members had removed the pulpit and the Lord's Supper table before the flood, Davenport said.

"It had to be a force of water to do what it did," he said.

Davenport said the church members — mostly older people — were disappointed by the loss, but only two of them still lived in Dorena.

"Back in the '40s, the '50s, there were homes all down through there. There were a lot of people who lived down there because they worked on the farms. There were a lot of sharecroppers. That church used to run 100 and more people on Sunday mornings," said Davenport, 75, who was born in East Prairie and now lives near Charleston. "As the farmers got bigger equipment, they began to farm more land, and the bigger the equipment got, the less workers they needed. Over time, and due to flooding down there, people moved out and into town."

Davenport said that most of his congregation lives in East Prairie but continued to drive the 20 miles to attend Sunday services in the spillway.

"That was their home. That was their church. They loved it, and they would have continued to go there until they died, if this hadn't have happened. Because they loved it that much down there, they just couldn't imagine going somewhere else," Davenport said.

What the passage of time hadn't yet taken from the Dorena Baptist Church, the breach of the levee did.

"The church would have closed sooner or later anyway. The flood just did it ahead of time," Davenport said. "I disagreed with what took place — them blowing the levee — but they didn't ask me."

'It's just home'

There were just under 100 houses — and about 200 residents — in the floodway before the levee breach. Although Dorena had lost much of its population over the years, the folks who remained have roots that run deep in the area.

"A lot of people don't understand about the spillway," said McIvan Jones, 70, a third-generation farmer who has been working the fields around Dorena for 50 years. "They might think, 'Well, why do they live there?' It's just home."

It's also a place where fertile farmland produces bountiful crops of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, rice and sorghum. The University of Missouri's Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute has put the value of this year's lost crops at $85 million, a figure that doesn't include the loss of property.

"This is a fine agricultural factory," said Ben White of Kirkwood who inherited a 135-acre farm near Dorena that was purchased by his grandfather in 1906. White, who grew up on the farm, rents his ground to Jones, a neighbor and close family friend.

At harvest time, it's a short drive to the river and the port facility of Consolidated Grain and Barge in Dorena, making the spillway both productive and efficient, White said.

Even as the spillway farmers rush to plant crops on those fields that have dried from the flooding, they express concerns over the height of the temporary levee the Army Corps of Engineers is constructing at the breach sites. The target elevation — 51 feet — is 10 feet lower than it was before. And until the levee is secured, they worry that their newly planted fields are at risk should the river rise — and those who plan to return to live on their farms hesitate to begin rebuilding.

Dennis Bennett, 57, grew up in the spillway and still makes his home there.

"The water got about 5 foot deep at my house, tore all the walls out. It's just been a mess. A tragedy for everybody down there," he said. "You can't do anything until they rebuild the levees. So we can't move back. You've got to wait."

Despite everything, Bennett, who works at an aluminum smelter in New Madrid, intends to repair and move back to his home.

"I've lived in several different places, but I call it home down there," he said.

'They bombed us'

Milus Wallace drives an all-terrain vehicle over his fields near Big Oak Tree State Park, the site of one of the three levee breaches made by the Corps.

A dune buggy might work better.

A thick layer of sand now covers about 300 acres of his farmland, he estimates, and also a portion of the state park, which remains closed. And, there is a "blue hole" of water approximately 50 feet deep that was scoured out of the ground by the rush of floodwater.

Wallace estimates that sand removal will cost $2 million, something he believes the Corps should be responsible for. But any cleanup is on hold until an endangered species of birds — interior least terns — finish nesting on a sizable chunk of his new beach. They, too, are refugees from the flooding.

While the terns will slow the recovery process, Wallace just adds it to the list of his problems. The floodwater attacked the brick ranch home with its handcrafted pecan wood floors that he and his wife, Wanda, built 35 years ago. The house is a devastated shell of its former self. Gone also are the farm's grain bins, equipment sheds and buildings, including the cookhouse where they used to host fish fries for friends, neighbors — and anyone who happened by.

"In two months we haven't had a fish fry. Can't even find our fish cookers; they're in a semi somewhere," said Wanda Wallace.

Until the levee breach on May 2, the Wallaces say they lived in their own paradise, where they kept rabbits, pheasants and quail. This time of year, she would use 10 pounds of sugar a day to feed thousands of hummingbirds. The garden she took pride in was washed away.

The Wallaces had some flood insurance but not enough to cover their damages. Their home was insured for about one-third of its $300,000 replacement value. They have moved to a house outside the spillway.

"We'd love to move back, but it's not good sense financially," said Milus Wallace.

While he is battling on many fronts to get his old life back, Wallace seems particularly aggravated by environmentalists who would turn his property into a natural wetland. The Wallaces say they, too, are conservationists. They were given the Farmer Conservationist of the Year award in 2008 by the New Madrid County Soil and Water Conservation District for their farming practices, including planting sunflowers for migrating Monarch butterflies.

Milus Wallace isn't convinced that activating the floodway made a big enough difference in the water levels at Cairo, and he believes the Corps should compensate the spillway residents for all damages.

"They need to pay everybody what damages they had and restore their life back," he said. "They go to Iraq and build their country back after they bomb it. They bombed us, they ought to come and rebuild us back."

Wanda Wallace says she has taken to wearing sunglasses all of the time to hide her tears. Her husband chokes up, too — when he talks about the people who just showed up at their house to help them evacuate their animals and livestock after the Corps announced its decision to blast the levee.

"Some people have been so good through this," he 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.

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