© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Back to the spillway: The drama of the flooding secures its place in local history

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 21, 2011 - LaWanda Douglas, 84, is on a mission these days, determined to add today's history to the exhibits at the Mississippi County Historical Museum in East Prairie: front pages of local newspapers chronicling the intentional breach of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway on May 2 by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The most dramatic, she believes, was the May 10 edition of Charleston's Enterprise-Courier. Spread across the page is a picture of the nighttime explosion of the levee, imprinted with the time and date, and a three-word headline:

They Did It

The words capture the shock, anger and dismay expressed by farmers and residents of the floodway after the Corps blew the levee to lower river levels at Cairo, Ill., and other points on the Mississippi River. Controversy had raged in the days leading up to the decision to "activate" the 130,000-acre floodway for the first time in 74 years, even as the river swelled to historic levels.

"It's a part of our history," said Douglas, who noted that the museum has little material about the flood of 1937.

"But this one -- they'll know what happened 50 years from now," she insists.

So on a blistering hot July afternoon, the 84-year-old Douglas made the 40-mile round trip to Sikeston to have historic news pages laminated for the little museum she and her fellow volunteers have put together in a former retail space in downtown East Prairie. Douglas said it's not really a museum in the true sense of the word -- but more of a safe depository for memorabilia and old photographs donated by area residents.

"I've always been interested in history," said Douglas who writes the "Pride in the Prairie" column for the East Prairie Eagle Courier. Her stories, she says, are written from the heart.

Although she has lived in town all of her life, Douglas said the spillway is truly dear to her. She used to sell insurance to spillway farmers, and she has friends and family members who still work and own property there, including her son and his wife. Douglas said the couple live on the farm that belonged to her daughter-in-law's parents.

"They had a nine-room brick home, and the flood took the bricks off one end of the house. Inside, all of the sheetrock and everything was down and the wooden supports were warped, the current was so strong," Douglas said.

Douglas said the levee breach was devastating to all who call the spillway home.

"Their lives were torn apart," she said, her voice breaking. "It was a way of life that they loved."

The Dorena of Old

Among the items in the East Prairie museum are black and white photographs made in 1949 of houses, businesses and churches in the old farming community of Dorena, in the southeastern part of the spillway.

Douglas said the pictures were copied from a scrapbook of pictures commissioned by W.C. Bryant, a civic-minded farmer and businessman who owned the Spillway cotton gin in Dorena. Just a dozen years after the 1937 flood, the people of Dorena had rebuilt their damaged homes and businesses, and Bryant wanted to document the thriving development. He hoped the pictures would convince Congress to take action to prevent the floodway from being operated again.

Typed captions accompanying the pictures include estimated property values.

In one, a Coca Cola truck is parked outside the Williams store and Dorena Theater, built in 1941. The "value" of the buildings: about $10,000.

The pictures are testament to the Dorena of old, a community that began dispersing after World War II, when residents migrated to the cities to work and live -- a trend fueled by progress, the mechanization of farming and backwater flooding that has been a bane to the southern part of the spillway.

In recent years, about 200 people lived in the entire Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway -- a narrow strip 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 Great Flood of 1927. Among the longtime residents are farmers whose families have owned their property for generations.

"I wish I were younger. I could write a book about Dorena," Douglas said. "Sometimes I wish I didn't remember everything I do."

An interesting aside for history buffs: On April 16, 1927, 1,200 feet of levee crumbled in Dorena, the first of the levee collapses along the raging river.

Douglas said she was 11 in January 1937 when the Corps activated the floodway the first time -- too young to understand the social and economic impact of the flooding that washed away the farms, businesses and homes of the spillway.

"I remember the personal sadness and losses, but the economic losses didn't sink in on me," she said.

She remembers that refugees -- many of them displaced sharecroppers -- were housed in railroad boxcars that the Red Cross had brought in to East Prairie. The high school was turned into a hospital.

"My daddy was a barber and we lived in East Prairie," she said. "But my mother's entire family and my daddy's entire family were farmers and lived in the spillway. We lived in a four-room frame house and one of my mother's sisters and her family -- she, her husband and two children -- moved in with us. They put their household goods in the coal shed. Of course, they didn't have the household goods we have now," Douglas said.

Douglas said she remembers the icy winter weather and farmers driving their cattle out of the spillway.

"The Army, the government, dropped pamphlets from airplanes telling them to get out. They were going to blow the levee. So they started getting out the best way they could. Walking or in wagons. The houses in 1937 were mostly just shacks. They didn't have the type of housing we have now," she said.

Temporary Levee Repairs Underway

Douglas is among those who remain unconvinced that it was necessary for the Corps to breach the levee because, they say, the river was beginning to overtop it anyway. It is a belief that is commonly held and frequently expressed by floodway residents.

But the Corps says that waiting for the levee to overtop was not an option.

"Natural overtopping would not have given enough reduction in pressures on the rest of the system soon enough," said Dennis Abernathy, a project manager with the Corps.

Although the Birds Point levee was beginning to overtop, the other parts of the river flood control system were in too much danger, he said.

In announcing the decision to activate the floodway on May 2, the Corps' Major Gen. Michael Walsh, the president of the Mississippi River Commission, emphasized that it was a "grave" choice.

"We have exceeded the record stage already at Cairo," he said in a statement. "We are on a course to break records at many points as the crest moves through the system. Sometimes people celebrate with 'records' -- but not this time. Making this decision is not easy or hard -- it's simply grave -- because the decision leads to loss of property and livelihood -- either in a floodway -- or in an area that was not designed to flood."

Abernathy said the Corps has started to make temporary repairs to two of the three sites where the levee was breached. Work on the third site is on hold until September because an endangered species -- the least tern -- is nesting on sand deposited by the river. The Corps timetable is to rebuild the levee to 51 feet on the Cairo gauge by Nov. 30.

Farmers who have started replanting their fields in the spillway are worried because at 51 feet, the temporary levee will be 10 feet lower than it was before the breach.

The height, Abernathy said, was determined by engineers with an eye toward the entire river control system.

"Fifty-one is an elevation we feel like we can go to and not create any undue risks to other parts of the system," he said. "We have to look at this as a system approach and anything above 51 could cause problems in other areas."

The Corps is in the process of doing damage assessment from Cape Girardeau to the Louisiana coast to determine priorities for permanent repairs, he said.

'It's Not Right to Let a County Just Wither'

U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, said that she is focused on the Corps' efforts to make temporary repairs to the frontline levee because it is vital to the floodway's farmers who returned to their fields as soon as they became dry enough to plant.

Emerson said that she is also concerned that the temporary levee will be shorter and she will address that in discussions over permanent fixes for the levee.

She noted that the Army Corps of Engineers has formed an inter-agency task force to prioritize work needed to restore its system of levees, navigation channels and "water control structures" along the Mississippi River that were beaten up by the record spring flooding. In addition to Birds Point, two other floodways were activated on the lower Mississippi.

Emerson believes that local representatives need to be included in the task force for it to be a real working group.

"I'm not going to rest until the levee is rebuilt," she said. "End of discussion for me. And we will work to that end, but it's got to be done sooner than later. We have to rebuild the levee and protect people and protect the land. It's not right to let a county [Mississippi County] just wither."

Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, said it is important for federal and state agencies to work together to restore the spillway's farm ground to its pre-flood state -- and to fix the damage to public infrastructure: roads, bridges, culverts, drainage ditches.

"I think there's a moral obligation," he said. "Those farmers made some huge sacrifices for other citizens, and now I'd like to see all citizens help them to repair their land to what it was before." 

Hurst said he was shocked by some of the comments he heard during the days leading up to the levee breach that were critical of farmers who spoke out against the Corps action. The farmers were understandlably upset, he said, because they faced losing a year's work but also long-term damage to their land that will take years and money to repair.

"When something doesn't happen for nearly 80 years, you begin to believe that it won't. And when those agreements and easements were signed the floodway was a completely different place than it is now," he said. "There have been millions of dollars of investments. Three generations of work spent in building up those farms. I don't think it was surprising when people asked the Corps to avoid this if they possibly could."

Hurst, who farms in northwest Missouri and has also seen the effects of Missouri River flooding this season, said that he won't second-guess the Corps' decision to activate the floodway because what's done is done, and the focus now is on the future.

"Up until the moment when it happened we were hoping that they wouldn't have to do it, that they wouldn't make that choice. But the minute it happened we started talking about rebuilding levees – and that's our emphasis at this point," he said.

Hurst said the farmers just want to get back to the business of raising food.

"This is some of the best ground in the country," he said. "There's almost nothing like that land in the whole world: fertility, water and long growing season."

Hurst said there should be a careful study of the floodway activation to determine whether it really worked -- and whether it is the best alternative in the future. He shares the concerns of farmers who worry that this use of the floodway after nearly three-quarters of a century will lead to more frequent activation in the future.

Emerson and Gov. Jay Nixon both toured the floodway this past week and praised the resilience of farmers who were attempting to salvage whatever they can of the remainder of the growing season, despite their worries over the temporary levee and their futures in the spillway. Hurst said the farmers have little choice; they are doing what they have to do.

"You have to try," he said. "You've got mortgage payments, machinery payments, property taxes, expenses that keep going on even if you didn't plant. Farmers are tough. We keep trying until we can't try any longer. That's what people are showing – the mental toughness it takes to be a good farmer."

'We Were Sacrificed'

There is a boxed quote on the flood resources page of the Missouri Department of Agriculture's website that addresses the push and pull over the decision to activate the floodway:

"This is not a trade-off of lives on one side of the river versus farmland on the other side of the river. There are lives being impacted on both sides. It doesn't matter which side of the river it is when it's your home, your livelihood. There are families that have lost everything they've worked hard for the last 70 years to build; their homes, their businesses, their farm ground. We're going to do everything we can to get them back on their feet." - Director of Agriculture Dr. Jon Hagler, May 6, 2011

Even as farmers replant their fields, those who lived in the spillway must decide whether it is worth the risk to rebuild their homes there. But for some spillway institutions, there is no doubt: The end came with the floodwaters.

Such is the case with the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, a historic African-American landmark in the southeastern area of the spillway, known as Wolf Island. The Rev. Sylvester Davis said he knew his church would not be rebuilt when he went to see it after the floodwaters receded.

The water had been so deep, and the current had smashed through the white frame structure like a freight train, he said.

"I walked up there and looked. It was painful, but I had already cried before I left home. I had a feeling about how it was going to look," said Davis, 69, pastor at Mt. Zion for the past 10 years.

Davis said the church, which dated to 1841, had survived floods, tornadoes and heavy storms in the past. He was told by longtime members of his congregation that the flooding in 1937 moved the church off its original site.

"The Lord watched over that building," Davis said. "There was something about that building -- God put his arms around it."

Davis said the congregation of about 20 included some residents of Pinhook, a tiny African-American community in the floodway that will probably not be rebuilt. Residents are working with the Federal Emergency Disaster Agency to relocate the town outside the floodway. Davis, who grew up in Pinhook, said he thought the levee breach was wrong.

"I feel that they sacrificed the people on the east side of the levee to save Cairo," he said.

Davis said his congregation has joined with a church in Wyatt, Mo., about 25 miles away.

"We're going to make it some way or another," he said. "The Lord's gonna see fit."

Davis noted that there had been 22 pastors of the church before him -- their names kept on a list that hung inside the church. It was one of the few items he salvaged from the structure.

He said it was sad to lose a church of that age because there was a special feeling about walking into a building that old.

"We enjoyed ourselves down there," he said. "But now it's totally lost."

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.