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People of flooded Missouri town keep the faith that they won't be forgotten

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 7, 2011 - MOREHOUSE, MO. — "THIS TOO SHALL PASS"

It is a message of a town's faith, carefully hand-lettered onto a signboard and placed for all to see on Highway 114 at the edge of Morehouse, Mo., a Bootheel town that was devastated last week by flash flooding.

The floodwater has been slowly receding, but on Wednesday evening much of the community remained impassable, with home after home standing empty in the watery brown soup.

"Understandably, people are stressed. But people have got a strong Christian backbone, and they pull together," said George Kruse, who moved to Morehouse several years ago. "It's a community of small resources but much faith."

Kruse said he is impressed by the can-do spirit of his neighbors in this town of 1,000 people, about 10 miles from Sikeston in New Madrid County.

Although the nation's attention has been focused on the misery of flood-ravaged towns along the Mississippi River — and the controversy surrounding the decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to breach the levee and activate the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway — much of the rest of southeast Missouri is also waterlogged. Record spring rains have overwhelmed the elaborate web of ditches, levees and diversion channels that make up the Little River Drainage District, formed in 1907 to drain the lowlands that stretch across seven counties in the Bootheel.

Lifelong residents of Morehouse say they have never witnessed anything like this disaster — water that seemed to appear from nowhere on April 27.

"It came up like a nightmare in the middle of the night," said Bill Beck who serves on the board of First Baptist Church of Morehouse which opened an emergency shelter that night to take in senior citizens evacuated from a Housing Authority complex.

By 10 a.m., the next morning, the floodwater was rising by 2 inches an hour, said the Rev. Randy Conn, pastor of First Baptist.

The water rose so fast that most residents were unable to move their possessions from their homes. Troops from the Missouri National Guard arrived to help sandbag, but the water eventually covered about three-quarters of the town.

Morehouse residents say their situation was worsened because of an emergency earthen berm constructed along the westbound lanes of Route 60 by the Missouri Department of Transportation to keep that thoroughfare open from flooding. The berm, they say, prevented the water from flowing out of Morehouse and across the highway, causing the flood levels to rise dramatically in town.

MoDOT officials dispute the allegation.

'A lot of unknowns'

The good news in Morehouse is the spirit of giving from faith-based organizations that have rallied around the community, as residents wait to hear whether they will qualify for federal disaster relief.

Area churches of all denominations have collected donations of food, clothing and furniture and have taken turns bringing meals to the shelter. The disaster relief organization of the Southern Baptist Convention provided a portable shower unit, and volunteers have pledged to help with the town's cleanup.

"The support we've received is tremendous," said Conn. About 30 people were still living at the church's family life center on Friday.

Larry Davidson, the town's mayor pro-tem who was visiting with residents at the shelter, agreed that the assistance from the churches has been wonderful.

"We are not forgotten," he said.

Even so, hope for the future is tempered by the realities of what lies ahead for a town that was already facing tough times, Davidson said.

With unemployment in New Madrid County above 9 percent, it remains to be seen what impact the widespread flooding will have on local jobs. The town's population was already declining — to 973 in the 2010 census from 1,015 residents before. Median household income in Morehouse was $23,250 in 2009.

"Everything they've got, they've got in their little house," Davidson said.

Most residents say they didn't have flood insurance — because the town never floods, and won't have the financial resources to repair their flood-damaged properties. Davidson he said he has already talked to residents who plan to relocate.

But the people have banded together to get through disasters before — as they did after an ice storm paralyzed Southeast Missouri in 2009, Davidson said.

"It's a good little community and the people are willing to pull together, but this is so stressful," he said. "This one has a lot of unknowns. We will bounce back — to what we don't know."

No where for the water to go

Beck, whose home was flooded, has been living in the First Baptist shelter for a week with his wife Marsha and dog Sassy. Because of his board position with the church, he helps run the shelter and jokes that he has become the unofficial mayor of the place.

He believes the flooding would have stabilized and would have been limited to a smaller section of the town had MoDOT not built the berm along Route 60, trapping the water in Morehouse.

"People are very dissatisfied with MoDOT," Beck said, adding that some homeowners are meeting with attorneys to discuss a possible class-action suit.

Cheryl Ball, assistant district engineer for MoDOT's southeast district, said the department has no data to suggest that its work to keep Route 60 open had an impact on the flooding in Morehouse.

MoDOT is responsible for keeping Route 60 passable because it is one of two primary routes into Southeast Missouri for emergency relief and aid, she said.

The road was closed temporarily because of the unprecedented flooding in the area, due to large breaches in a levee north of Morehouse, Ball said. MoDOT started building the berm on the afternoon of April 28 to have more control over the water so the eastbound lanes of Route 60 could be reopened to two-lane traffic. The temporary closing had caused an hour's detour.

Ball said she sympathizes with Morehouse residents who had no warning when the levee broke. But MoDOT did what it needed to do to keep transportation and emergency routes open to protect the region from being stranded with no aid.

"We have employees who live in the areas that have been devastated by the floods," she said. "We take it very personally. We live here. We work here. Many of us grew up here."

U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, who met with Morehouse officials last weekend, said she is upset with MoDOT's actions. She agrees that MoDOT needed to keep Route 60 open, but she says department officials should have alerted the town that they were building the berm, which she believes aggravated flooding in Morehouse.

"If you look at the lay of the land, the water could at least have gone out over Highway 60. You don't have to be an engineer — you can know that by just looking," she said. "There was nowhere for that water to go once they created the berm."

Emerson said she will ask state legislators to assist her in getting answers from MoDOT.

'When tough times come'

Beck worries that the government's focus will be on helping the owners of farms in the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway who have gotten the most media attention.

"This little old town of 1,000 people — we don't have a big voice," Beck said. "This place is more demolished than the Mississippi River Bottoms."

Emerson is working with Missouri's congressional delegation to push for federal disaster relief for Missouri that would include the people of Morehouse. On Thursday, Gov. Jay Nixon requested that President Barack Obama issue a major disaster declaration for the state, citing the high winds, tornadoes and severe flooding that have plagued residents since mid-April.

With so much weather-related misery in southeast Missouri, the need for reconstruction is far-flung: rebuilding the Birds Point-New Madrid levees; fixing breeched levees at Poplar Bluff; repairing the damage caused by the overflow at Wappapelo Dam, including washed-away sections of Highway T.

And, Emerson noted, the fight is still on to save Caruthersville from the flooding Mississippi.

"People are hurting all over," Emerson said, adding that they all deserve to get the help they need.

In the meantime, the Rev. Tim Russell, pastor of Lighthouse Christian Center in Dexter, Mo., praised the region's residents who responded instantly to the disaster, answering the call for food and clothing.

Russell and the Rev. Mike Kohlbaker of the Assembly of God Church in Dexter toured Morehouse on Wednesday to assess the community's needs.

"When tough times come, Americans pull together — they never fail," Russell said. "When people have a purpose it changes their lives."

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.