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Mississippi Co. farmers brace for the worst after levee detonation

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 3, 2011 - SIKESTON - The detonation of the Birds Point levee tonight should spell relief for Cairo, Ill., residents who've been evacuated because of flooding, but it will likely spell disaster for many Mississippi County, Mo., farmers whose land will be inundated by the release of water.

Bob Byrne's 550 acres have been in the family for over 100 years. This year, the 59-year-old farmer has already planted 100 acres of wheat and corn.

"Nobody knows" what kind of damage the water pouring over the levee will do to his land and that of other local farmers, but one thing's for sure, Byrne says, "It will put us in a hurt." When he heard the news at 5 p.m. Monday that the levee would be purposely breached, his worst fears were realized.

"I just had a sinking feeling," Byrne said.

Corps officials said the breach will cause the river at Cairo to drop 4 to 5 feet in two to three days. After that, it could rise again depending on conditions.

The recent rain has prevented farmer Richard Crawford, 63, from planting much of his 900 to 1,000 acres so far this year. During the 10 years he's owned the land, he knew the day might come when the land would no longer be protected by the levee.

"It was always a possibility," Crawford said.

Now that possibilities have become realities, Crawford isn't sure what planting season will look like for him and his son, Rodney, who farms with him to support his wife and two children.

"It will be at least six weeks before the water gets out of here," Crawford said. "That will be too late to plant some crops like the corn."

In 1993, Crawford lost his entire crop to flooding. He currently has some "astronomical bills" to pay, but would only say, vaguely, that he'll handle the situation the way he did that he did nearly 20 years ago.

"I sucked it up and dealt with it. You can cry or do what you want to do but there ain't nothing to do but deal with it," Crawford said. "But it's going to hurt -- that's a fact."

Federal aid may be coming to ease some of the pain. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said that Tom Vilsack, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has assured her that affected farmers will be eligible for federal help after the waters recede.

"I'm truly disappointed that the situation got to the point where the Army Corps feels it is necessary to intentionally breach the levee. This may be the last resort, but it will destroy homes and damage farmland that is lifeblood for so many in Missouri," said McCaskill. "It will be a long road to rebuild. Secretary Vilsack has assured me that the Department of Agriculture will help Missourians get back on their feet and I will make certain that they make good on this promise."

McCaskill's office says that the USDA will honor crop insurance claims.

While "tonight's decision is the right decision for Cairo," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said, "I will also stand by my colleagues from Missouri and other states in the Midwest to make sure that residents and businesses that suffer great losses can recover with help from the federal government. Though it doesn't make it easier for those affected, if intentionally breaching the levee in Missouri saves an entire city, the cost to the government will be dramatically less than it otherwise might have been."

Still, state Rep. Steve Hodges, D-East Prairie, Mo., thinks that the aftermath of flooding may linger a much longer time. He worries not only about the long-term effects on the land itself, but also on the already fleeing next generation of local farmers.

"So many people are leaving the farming industry; a lot of their children, they can't pass this farm to them because the children want to go out and do other things," Hodges said. "And I think this is going to make it that much more difficult."

However reluctant he is, Byrne says he does have another option if he ends up losing much of his crop. "I'll go to work I guess; I drive a truck and I can go back to that, driving long distance."

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.