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Back to the spillway: Residents of the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway must decide where to live

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 18, 2011 - DORENA, Mo. — Ruben Bennett, 88, was just down the road from his flood-wrecked home on this hot afternoon checking out a new place to live.

Bennett — everyone calls him "Brother Bennett" — is a local icon. He sold groceries and gas for 45 years in the old farming community of Dorena, at the southeast edge of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway. Although his little store has been closed for some time, Bennett still lived on the second floor of the modest white-shingled building trimmed in green — until it was claimed by the floodwaters of the Mississippi.

"You'd have to have a picture of it," Brother Bennett said. "It tore it all to pieces. Can't repair it."

There aren't many housing options in the 130,000-acre floodway, since the Army Corps of Engineers intentionally breached the levee at Birds Point on May 2 to alleviate flooding in Cairo, Ill., and other points on the river — the first activation of the floodway in 74 years. A majority of the 100 or so homes were destroyed or severely damaged by the wall of river water that gushed free.

Bennett thought that with some work he might be able to move into a second-floor apartment above the Big Oak General store building just outside Big Oak Tree State Park. The lower level of the building had been flooded, but its second floor appeared to have minimal damage.

Of course, Bennett said, he'd have to put in a "lift" to get upstairs because climbing that flight of stairs would be too much for him.

Bennett, who was born and lived his whole life in Mississippi County, worked and raised his family in the spillway and still owns a small farm there.

Even in these trying times, he hasn't lost his sense of humor. Asked where he is living these days, Bennett replied with a grin: "Any place I can get three meals a day."

'Everything is so uncertain'

McIvan Jones, 70, said it isn't surprising that his elderly neighbor is trying to find a place to live in the spillway.

"It's just home to him. Like it is to all the rest of us. It's just home," said Jones, a third-generation spillway farmer who returned to his fields to plant soybeans as soon as the ground became dry enough to work.

"We've been there all our lives," he said. "It's a way of life. Hard to realize it's going to be changed."

Jones said he will probably build a new home on farmland he owns outside of the floodway although he worries about security on his spillway farm if no one is living there — and how that might affect insurance availability and rates.

"I hate not living down in the country I was born and raised in, but it just doesn't justify trying to build back in that situation," he said. "The way the spillway is right now, everything is so uncertain it doesn't make sense to build a new home there."

Jones said he has planted about 1,200 of the 3,000 acres he owns and works in the spillway but will have to call it quits now because it's getting too late in the season — and the heat has turned the wet ground into a "pressure cooker," affecting germination.

Even in the best of times, farming is a gamble, but this year's flooding has turned life upside down, Jones said. The brick ranch-style home where he lived with his wife Becky is uninhabitable, his farm buildings were severely damaged and a wheat crop just weeks from harvest was washed away.

Jones said he was numb for days after the levee breach, and it is difficult for him to see his farm in its current state.

"It's really been a terrible time adjusting to all the obstacles and problems," he said. "It's almost mindboggling to think of all the stuff you've got to do. The things you got in front of you. Cleaning up all the mess. Trying to get a crop in. Trying to deal with flood insurance. And crop insurance. It boggles the mind to deal with it all."

Jones said he had flood insurance on his home and "buy-up" crop insurance that costs more but also provides a higher level of protection than the basic "catastrophic" plan. But his claims are still being processed, and he'll be nervous until he receives the checks because it takes a sizable investment to farm these days.

"We have to dig deep in our pockets or used borrowed money, and we've already borrowed money to put in the crops that we lost," he said. "I was counting on my wheat crop to get me through until fall and pay some on my operating loan. They keep saying I'll get 35 percent now and the balance in September or October."

Without the insurance money Jones said he would probably have to give up farming — and he doesn't intend to do that.

"I don't know any better," he said. "In the spring I'm ready to go to work. It's in your bones, I guess."

Jones said he and his wife received three months' rent from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and about $800 for emergency expenses — about $2,200.

The emergency relief was helpful, he said, but he felt a little bad about taking it because there have been so many disasters affecting so many Americans in recent months.

"I'm maybe going to get some insurance money one of these days, and I hate to take away from other people that might not have insurance," he said.

Jones said it was harder to lose his house than his fields.

"Farming's a way to make a living, but that's where I raised my kids," he said, motioning toward his broken, empty house. "I planted all those trees. Where I go next, I'll have to plant trees."

He paused.

"I won't live to see the shade."

Remembering the 1937 flood

Only the oldest of the spillway's old-timers, such as Brother Bennett, remember the havoc in January 1937, the last time the levee was blown to activate the floodway. The Birds Point-New Madrid floodway was developed by the Corps as part of its flood-control system on the lower Mississippi after the disastrous Great Flood of 1927 that killed more than 200 and displaced more than a half million people.

"I have seen the '27 water, the '37 water and this water here, and all the waters in between," said Bennett.

A Corps history of the event notes that the move was just as controversial 74 years ago. Although the Mississippi above Cairo was not at flood stage that winter, it had combined with the flooding Ohio River to set record high flood stages between Cairo and Helena, Ark.

The floodway had a larger population in those days; the landscape was dotted with the houses of sharecroppers who eked out a living on their 40 or so acres. The icy conditions during that wintertime flood only added to the misery of the evacuees.

During the three-quarters of a century that passed between the two floodway activations, the fertile land developed into a productive agricultural engine that produced corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice. Farming became more mechanized, and fewer workers were needed to work the fields. Larger farms replaced small farms and often provided housing for regular hands as part of their compensation packages and temporary housing for migrant workers during picking season.

Wendell Choate, 92, was a teenager when the levee was dynamited in 1937. He says he can't help but compare what happened then with what happened in May.

"The houses weren't as valuable or as expensive to put back then. But most of them were destroyed then, just as they have been this time," he said. "We were living in a modern world down there until they blew the levee."

Choate stressed that it isn't just about the monetary value of what was lost — $85 million for the crops alone, according to agricultural experts at the University of Missouri — but about the disruption of lives.

"I just have so many questions that are unanswered," he said. "Was it politics? Or, was it necessary? Does the floodway even need to be in existence? Does it do any good at all?"

Choate was honored by the Chamber of Commerce at this year's East Prairie Sweet Corn Festival for 52 years of sweet corn production in the Dorena area of the spillway. Choate Farms lost this year's sweet corn crop, grain bins, several homes, buildings and offices when the floodway was activated.

Choate's daughter Beth, a fourth-generation farmer, said the farmland around Dorena is not only a gorgeous place that is abundant with wildlife — from eagles to bobcats — but it is also vital to the economy of Mississippi County.

"Dorena for me has always been just a little slice of heaven," said Choate, 52.

Like most of the floodway farmers, Choate disagrees with the Corps action and believes that the levee should have been left to "overtop" naturally. She estimates that she would have had about 4 feet of water in some of her buildings and others would have been spared.

"It still would have been a mess, but it was something that would have been natural. And once again, we're used to fighting natural disasters. But this time I had 10 feet of water in my office. Ten feet of water over all of my buildings. This was completely different. It destroyed all of them. There was nothing that we could do."

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.