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Back to the spillway: The Wallaces rebuild

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Milus and Wanda Wallace can't move heaven, but they are moving tons of earth to live once again on their "slice of heaven" in the southern section of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.

The Wallaces' Mississippi County farm was among the 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland inundated by floodwater in May after the Army Corps of Engineers intentionally breached the levee in three places to alleviate flooding in Cairo, Ill., and other towns along the Mississippi River.

While workers from the Corps work nearby to repair damage at the center crevasse in the levee, the Wallaces are still trying to put their farm — and their lives — back together.

For the farmers of the spillway, their land — and the crops they hurried to plant on it after the floodwaters receded — has to come first.

"We can't make our house payments without the land," said Wanda Wallace, matter-of-factly.

Six months after the flooding, the Wallaces still live outside the spillway, while most of their possessions remain packed away in semi-trailers. There were just under 100 houses, and about 200 residents, in the floodway before the levee was breached. Only a few have returned to live here.

On this blustery Saturday afternoon in November, Wallace was serving lunch to their farm crew — flavorful stew, barbecue sandwiches and banana pudding that she'd cooked at her current home and transported to the farm, which is about a 20-mile commute. Her buffet table was the bed of a pickup truck parked in a large machine shed, the only building they have rebuilt.

With Thanksgiving approaching, the Wallaces were harvesting between rains on fields they had managed to plant after the flooding. They lost their home and all of their buildings when the levee was breached. About 300 acres of their farmland, near Big Oak Tree State Park, were left coated with a thick layer of sand, and the gushing water also scoured out a pond-sized "blue hole" about 50 feet deep.

In order to rebuild here, the Wallaces have been hauling river sand removed from their damaged acreage to their former home site, where they are molding it into two giant mounds.

On one mound, they hope to soon begin construction on a duplex so their farmhands can live here once more and keep a watchful eye over property and equipment that can fall victim to scavengers in the empty countryside. The Wallaces plan to build their new home on the second mound, just behind — but well above — the remains of their beloved brick ranch with its handcrafted pecan wood floors that was left shattered by the unleashed river.

Wallace predicts that it will be several years before they are able to build their house, but she insists that they won't stop until they can return to this remote location next to the levee where they have made their home for 40 years.

That said, she simply can't say enough about the goodness of her new neighbors and old friends who came to their assistance last spring.

"The people are wonderful," Wallace said, describing acts of kindness shown them since their forced relocation.

"But it's not home," she said.

Brent Jones | St. Louis Beacon The floodway. The inflow levee breach is marked with an "I", while the two outflow breaches are marked with "O." The Army Corps of Engineers provides a more detailed PDF map of the area.

With an Eye on the River

The floodway — or spillway, as local residents call it — 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 in May, the floodway had been used only once before — in 1937.

The decision to breach the levee was a controversial one, landing the spillway farmers in the national headlines as they fought the Corps' decision. After a failed legal challenge by the state of Missouri, the Corps ordered the floodway evacuated, and farmers scrambled to move equipment and livestock before the first explosion on the night of May 2.

The Corps publishes weekly updates on the progress of the levee reconstruction — termed "Operation Make Safe" — on its website. The Corps has so far rebuilt the lower crevasse near the Donaldson Point Conservation Area and has rebuilt the upper crevasse at Birds Point to 51 feet on the Cairo, Ill., river gage, its original goal. In October, the Corps announced that it would rebuild to 55 feet. Major Gen. Michael Walsh, commander of the Corps' Mississippi Valley Division, also said that the Corps remains committed to restoring the levee to 62.5 feet — its height before the floodway activation — as funding becomes available.

But spillway farmers, including the Wallaces, say rebuilding the levee to 62.5 feet shouldn't be contingent on funding. Milus Wallace said he understands that the Corps has flowage rights across his land, but that it is required to restore property damaged by flooding.

"They've got the money, but it's appropriated for something else," he said. "If they push that button to blow it, they ought to be able to fix it back."

Work at the center crevasse, which is adjacent to the Wallaces' property, was delayed by the discovery of an endangered species of birds — interior least terns — found nesting on the "sand beach" left on his farm by the river. The levee at the center crevasse has yet to be rebuilt to even 51 feet, as the Corps had to first fill in the blue hole. On Nov. 11, the Corps moved a night shift to the site and announced that it will work day and night, as weather permits.

With winter approaching, the Wallaces worry that work will be delayed before the levee is rebuilt.

"The river could come in here," said Wanda Wallace. "That worries me. Even about starting to build this little duplex here."

Still, they push on, because, as she says, "Our living is here."

'I Miss the Stars'

The Wallaces aren't the first mound builders to live in the spillway. Visitors to the nearby Towosahgy State Historic Site will find mounds built between 1000 and 1400 A.D., the remains of a once flourishing Indian community. The inhabitants of the village belonged to the Mississippian cultural tradition and built mounds for civic and religious ceremonies.

Milus Wallace says that should flooding occur again, their home would be protected.

"There's a lot of people who have moved out to go to town anyway because it's more convenient, but we really like the country life," he said. "If we build our house up, and it floods, we'll just boat to our house."

Wallace says his remote locale isn't for everyone, but it offers him what he needs to enjoy life.

"It takes us about five minutes to get from our house to the river to go fishing. We can duck hunt. We can deer hunt. We can fish," he said. "I like it in the country. I like it in the spillway. It's a little slice of heaven if you like it."

Living in the southern part of the spillway has frequently meant dealing with backwater that enters through a gap in the levee system near New Madrid, but the Wallaces say the damage from that natural flooding is mild compared to the devastation created by the onslaught of water when the Corps blew the levee.

The floodway hadn't been activated in 74 years, and the Wallaces hope that it won't happen again. Still, they understand the risk.

"Everywhere you live, it's not foolproof. And we love it here so that's the reason we want to move back," Milus Wallace said. "It's no more unsafe than if you live in a skyscraper and you get an earthquake or you live in the woods and have a forest fire or you live at New Madrid and have an earthquake. Here, you can turn your lights off and you can't see your hand in front of your face at times. Now if you like that, it's great. If you don't like it, it's not. ... We like it."

Despite the flood damage, Wanda Wallace insists that things could have been worse.

"We're so blessed," she said.

And then she relates a story about a little girl she knows whose family relocated to nearby New Madrid after the flooding. The child was asked what she missed most about living on the farm.

"She said, 'I miss the stars.' "

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.