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Pinhook, Mo.: Levee breach destroyed the village, but changing times had already taken a toll

Twan Robinson's house during the flooding
Provided by Debra Tarver

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - For the residents of Pinhook, Mo., the aerial pictures of their flooded village are as unreal today as they were in May 2011 after the Mississippi River gushed through the breached levee into the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway:

  • The rooftops of their submerged homes are barely recognizable in the flowing soup of river water.
  • A bobcat clings to the shingles atop Aretha Robinson’s house; a snake is wrapped around the branches of a treetop.
  • Their beloved Union Baptist Church is an unreachable island.

Faye Mack, 45, of Lee's Summit, Mo., said she cried when she saw the images of her devastated hometown following the decision by the Corps of Engineers to blow open the levee to alleviate flooding in Cairo, Ill., and other towns along the river. Then she reached deep into her soul and wrote an anthem about Pinhook's love and fear of the river.
Faye Mack's Heartland Home

“I wrote the song hoping that it would get attention for the village and some financial help to rebuild,” said Mack who posted on YouTube a video of her family performing the tribute she calls “Heartland Home.” “I thought we were off to a great start. We had support and lots of hits. But hits are one thing, finances to rebuild are another. You just hope that at some point somebody somewhere will listen and hear those words, and it’ll make a difference.”

Home that is my home that the Mighty Mississippi now calls its own / My family flee they run from thee, this one thing I know / I love this space, this sacred place. I will never let it go - from Heartland Home, a tribute to Pinhook, Mo.

Although Mack left Pinhook in 1985 to attend college, she returned often to visit family and friends, particularly around the holidays. Her father still lived in Pinhook, and his house was so badly damaged they have been unable to go inside to retrieve belongings, including her high school cheerleading trophies, that were left behind in the hurried evacuation.

But the true loss was much greater, she said.

“It’s as if I don’t have a home to go to now,” Mack said. “I know there were probably a lot of meetings that took place prior to the trigger being pulled, but no one asked us. If they only knew what significance this place had. When you no longer have a home — that is something. The place where I live is Kansas City, but my home was Pinhook.”

George Williams, Mack’s father, is living in Sikeston while the Federal Emergency Management Agency considers a proposed buyout of the ruined village that traces its history to African-American farmers who bought land in the floodway before World War II. Williams’ family was among the early settlers in Pinhook, and Mack says it broke her heart to see the community destroyed, its residents displaced to neighboring towns in Mississippi County.

Stephen Duke, executive director of the Bootheel Regional Planning and Economic Development Commission, has been working with Pinhook on the buyout proposal, which was submitted to FEMA through the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA). He said the application was submitted in February 2012 and the latest revision was submitted in December.

Duke said the process takes time, but he understands the frustrations of Pinhook residents who have been out of their homes for nearly two years and still don’t know their fate.

“What’s standard operating procedure for us is an eternity for them,” Duke said. “They’re scattered to the wind right now.”

‘I have nothing now’

On paper, the village is even smaller than it appeared on the road sign that used to announce to motorists on State Road FF that they were passing through Pinhook, the only incorporated community located within the floodway. The marker, which is now gone, listed the population as 52, but Debra Tarver, village chairwoman, said 30 people lived there at the time of the flooding. A commemorative booklet about the flooding lists the names of 19 families who lost their homes.

Tarver is a daughter of Jim Robinson Jr., who until his death in 2004 was considered the patriarch of the village. His father had moved from Tennessee to the Pinhook area in 1943, where he bought an 80-acre wooded plot that he and his family cleared for farmland one tree at a time. Most of the residents who lost their homes, including Tarver, her mother Aretha and sister Twan, are descendants of the original settlers.

Tarver has been helping to lead the community’s efforts to relocate outside the floodway where residents would not have to live in fear that the floodway could be activated again or deal with backwater that currently seeps into the southern portion of the floodway through a gap in the levee system. Tarver said only a half-dozen property owners had flood insurance. Even if they wanted to stay, the cost of rebuilding in Pinhook would be too costly because new construction in the floodplain has to be elevated, either on stilts or earthen mounds.

Twan Robinson's house in Pinhook
Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
Twan Robinson's house

Duke said the relocation hinges first on the buyout, which has been requested from FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. The buyout would include the purchase and demolition of 17 residential properties and two public properties that sustained damages that were greater than 50 percent or more of their value. The buyout, estimated to cost $1.27 million, would be voluntary. Property owners would be paid fair market value, minus any reimbursements they have already received from insurance or disaster funds.

The application is for mitigation funds, which are used to prevent repetitive loss in the future, Duke said. If the buyout is approved, Pinhook residents could then request a community development block grant from the state to purchase land outside the floodway.

Duke said that FEMA prioritizes aid requests, based upon its budget. He noted that the agency has dealt with many disasters recently, including the tornado that devastated Joplin just weeks after the flooding in southeast Missouri and Hurricane Sandy that tore through the northeastern U.S. last October.

“I understand the prioritization process. It is what it is,” Duke said. “It’s hard for us to sit back and watch a community we’ve worked with for a long time being totally destroyed. You just keep doing what you can do, putting one foot in front of the other.”

Twan Robinson's house in Pinhook
Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
Twan Robinson's house

Duke said he was saddened by the loss of Pinhook because it had been such a close-knit community. He praised the residents for their determination in the aftermath.

“The community has been super to work with,” Duke said. “We have had several community meetings and also met individually with the property owners and not a one has had one word of bitterness about anything.”

Pinhook’s residents are only asking to be given back what they lost when the Corps decided to flood the spillway, Tarver said, adding that many of the homes were paid for, and that residents chose to live in the village because it was affordable.

Based on 1999 Census Bureau data, the median value of houses in the village was $55,000; the median household income was $15,417.

“When you buy a home, you live within your means,” Tarver said. “That’s the way we were taught. My sister was the last one to build a home in Pinhook. I lived in a mobile home. I couldn’t afford taxes in town. People lived there to stay within their means.”

Tarver said that people took pride in their little village. Residents kept their lawns mowed and took care of their homes — and one another.

“If you lived in the community and were sick, we knew your grass needed to be cut and we did it. If you couldn’t get yourself food, you’d have breakfast, lunch and dinner. If your house needed cleaning, we’d do that, too. We did that for anybody,” Tarver said.

“We had homes we were comfortable with. It may not be the king’s palace, but it was mine. I look at people on TV, and they’ve got a million-dollar staircase. I’m thinking I’d take a $10 staircase if I could get it. I have nothing now.”

Changing times also took toll

The intentional levee breach in 2011 hastened a trend of declining population in the floodway that had already been going on for decades, said historian Frank Nickell. Families that once made their livings working the land moved to the city in search of employment, as the mechanization of agriculture led to larger but fewer farms — and jobs — in the spillway.

Nickell said there is little written history about Pinhook, but the community probably saw its largest population — about 250 residents — in the 1950s and 1960s. In those days, the village had its own schools, grocery stores and churches.

Nickell is the former director of the Center for Regional History at Southeast Missouri State University and now works for the State Historical Society of Missouri. Nickell said the growth of Pinhook was tied to the development of the floodway as a form of flood management on the lower Mississippi by the Army Corps of Engineers after the historic flood of 1927. Before 2011, the Corps had activated the floodway only once before — in 1937.

“The aftermath of building this levee was that anyone who lived in the floodway lived there at their own risk,” Nickell said. “It diminished the value of the land, the owners having been compensated by the government for the right to flood it. The land was relatively inexpensive, and the owners were willing to sell it inexpensively to African Americans after the ’37 flooding.”

Nickell describes Pinhook as a powerful story, but he fears the residents face “a significant and uphill battle” in their relocation efforts.

Aretha Robinson's home during the flood in Pinhook
Credit Provided by Debra Tarver
Aretha Robinson's home during the flood

“Those are hardworking people’s lives that will never be the same,” he said.

State Rep. Steve Hodges, D-East Prairie, said he still disagrees with the Corps’ decision to blow open the levee, and he believes the federal government should compensate Pinhook residents for their losses.

“Mother Nature didn’t cause that to happen; the Army Corps of Engineers did,” said Hodges who agreed with state officials who went to court to try to prevent the activation of the floodway. Hodges, whose family moved to East Prairie in 1963, knows many of the floodway residents by name, including those who lived in Pinhook.

“They were good people. Honest, hard-working people,” he said.

Hodges is the Democratic candidate in the June 4 special election for the state’s 8th Congressional District.The seat was vacated by former U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, who stepped down to head the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Hodges said he respects the efforts of Pinhook residents to relocate outside the floodway and rebuild as a community. But he noted that time has not been on their side because — like much of rural America — Pinhook had already been losing population.

He said the destruction of the homes of the nearly 200 people who used to live in the spillway was sad because they didn’t just lose houses, furniture and personal possessions, they also lost their family histories.

“It just rips your heart out,” he said.

State Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem, the Republican candidate for Emerson’s seat, said it is unfortunate that the buyout process has taken so long.

Debra Tarver, with the cornerstone from Union Baptist Church which she saved.
Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
Debra Tarver, with the cornerstone from Union Baptist Church which she saved.

“It’s a very sad situation with how the whole process has occurred — the way it destroyed their whole community in 2011 and the fact that they’ve been dealing with this process for nearly two years and they still have no closure regarding what’s going to happen,” said Smith who is House Speaker Pro Tem.

Smith agrees that the federal government is responsible for compensating the residents.

“They did destroy the levee,” he said. “I think there’s some things that have to be addressed by the federal government based on their actions.”

Smith said the people of Pinhook had to fight for everything they had.

“There’s so much history there and memories that have been lost,” he said. “What I’m hearing is that applications are pending, and hopefully they will go in the right direction. If there’s anything I can do at the state level, that’s what I have control over right now.”

A community in waiting

Tarver has collected dozens of letters of support for the village’s relocation effort from residents and their families, as well as people who visited but never lived there. The letters describe a shared loss that is less about the dollar value of buildings than it is about the community’s heart and soul. Pinhook was a place where hard work was valued, elders were respected and the word “family” applied to neighbors, as well as blood relatives.

“The Pinhook community has always opened their hearts and doors to all people. It’s a watering hole of love, good food and fun,” wrote Vallorie Lane Jones whose family used to visit the Robinsons in Pinhook. “A place of this magnitude should be given what is required to rebuild so that the lessons of life continue to flow through all generations.”

Nick Strayhorn described the positive influence of the older generation — and the joy of holiday homecomings.

“I can remember going from house to house filling my belly with the best soul food around,” he wrote. “I can still taste Aunt Mary’s chess pie, Aunt Rosie’s lemon cake, Aunt Louise’s fried chicken, Aunt Aretha’s dressing and my grandmother’s sweet potato pie … After all my rounds, I would end up at my grandmother’s house and the whole family would be there. There were so many people we had to sit on the floor, but there was always enough food for everyone and to-go plates to take home.”

While Pinhook awaits its fate, the residents still get together once in a while, Tarver said. On Memorial Day weekend, they will gather as they always have for a celebration they call Pinhook Days.

Tarver, 55, said she will do everything in her power to rebuild her community.

“It’s a very hurtful thing for the older ones because they want so much to go home,” she said. “I’m fighting to see that my mom get her home back. She needs her home back. She needs to have that serenity. That peace. She’s earned it.”

For now, Tarver’s mother — “Miss Aretha” Robinson — is renting a home in Sikeston. Robinson said that at age 73 she is just trying to make the best of things while she waits to rebuild. She had helped her husband build their home, one of the largest and finest in Pinhook.

Though temporarily transplanted to the city, she is still surrounded by the love of family members who visit often. On this Friday, she cooked a feast of chicken, mashed potatoes and seasoned green beans because a visitor was coming. That was the way things were done in Pinhook, where even unexpected visitors were treated to a home-cooked meal.

“Everybody knew everybody,” she said, describing her neighbors, her friends. “They were just close, loving people.”

She talked about life in the countryside. About how she used to love to sit outside on a hot summer evening, in the glider her husband bought for her. She took pleasure in the quiet, in watching the deer play in the open field across the road.

“I miss it,” she said, softly.

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.