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Back to the spillway: Getting the harvest in

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 24, 2011 - An autumn Welcome flag on the front porch sends a cheerful greeting to anyone who might drive past the little house that McIvan Jones has renovated on his farm in the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.

There are few signs of life along the roads that meander through the southern section of the spillway near Dorena, Mo., save for the farmers working on this November afternoon to bring in the last of their fall crops and a crew still repairing the Mississippi River levee nearby. Jones' farm is part of the 130,000 acres of farmland that was inundated by river water last May after the Army Corps of Engineers breached the levee in three places to alleviate flooding along the Mississippi.

Six months later, only a handful of the 200 or so people who used to reside in the floodway have returned to live there. Houses, barns, sheds and grain bins remain in ruins, much as they were after the unleashed river surged across the land. The cleanup has been left for winter, as farmers focused first on the business of the spillway: Planting and tending to crops, and now the harvest.

The blessing, the farmers say, has been the farmland itself. While erosion and sand deposits took a disastrous toll on some acreage, other fields were able to be planted after the water receded.

Growers such as Jones hurried to plant as soon as their fields were dry so the season wouldn't be a total loss. He planted about 45 percent of the acreage he farms.

"The crops that were in did well. We were pleasantly surprised," Jones said. "We had a good yield, but, of course, we didn't get it all planted."

Jones is living in a renovated home that once housed his farmhands. The floodwater didn't reach the ceilings of this structure that stood on slightly higher ground than his brick ranch, just a stone's throw away, that cannot be salvaged. This home was repairable, though it required extensive work: new walls, flooring, windows and doors.

"We're living in this temporarily," Jones said. "We needed someone living down here, and so we decided instead of paying rent for an apartment we'd move out here."

Jones, who grew up on this land, is having a new house built on farmland he owns outside the spillway, where it will not be at risk of flooding. Come spring, Jones will have to get used to a new routine: commuting to work.

"It will be a new deal for me," he said.

A Fall Harvest, After All

About 90 percent of the spillway's fields were replanted after the floodwaters receded, said Anthony Ohmes, the University of Missouri Extension regional agronomist in Mississippi County. Although the total harvest was down because of late planting, he believes the yields per acre met the county's usual average.

Ohmes credits the spirit, drive and efficiency of the floodway farmers.

"A lot of midnight oil was burned to get it planted, and it most definitely paid off," he said.

In June, the University of Missouri's Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute had estimated the value of crop loss in the floodway at $85 million this year, a figure that did not include the loss of property and damage to about 100 homes located there. The report assumed that no crop would be planted in the floodway in 2011.

Ohmes said the farmers were assisted by favorable weather conditions, an extended growing season and the fact that the river stayed low after the floodwaters receded.

"There are some individual growers who were devastated. I don't want to make light of that; their livelihood was devastated," he said. "But overall the spillway was planted."

Instead of corn, the farmers planted soybeans, a more forgiving crop, Ohmes said.

"The harvest has been later, but, again, we've been blessed with dry weather," he said. "There have been a few rains, but overall the harvest has been going well."

Ohmes said the farmers will now turn their attention to rebuilding the infrastructure of the floodway -- but whether folks will return to live in the spillway remains to be seen.

"Our growers are very resilient. They're not the type to wring their hands and sit on idle," said Ohmes, whose father farmed in the area. "This area will definitely be planted. It's their livelihood. It's in their DNA to plant and to produce."

'The Spillway Has Been Woke Up'

Despite living in the floodway all of his life, Jones said he never envisioned the destruction caused by the levee breaches in May. The floodway hadn't been activated since 1937.

"I think the worst part of it was the shock," he said. "But we're getting by. I figure by the end of this winter we'll have our shop building back in order and our tool sheds repaired and the fans back in our grain bins. All this junk cleaned up. I just saw this cleanup as something we could do later. We were trying to get in what crop we could get it in.

Jones said it is important that the Corps rebuild the levee before the next high water. And like other farmers in the floodway, he isn't satisfied with the temporary restoration plan that calls for the levee to be rebuilt to 55 feet on the river gage at Cairo, Ill. The Corps has said that when funding becomes available it is committed to rebuilding to 62.5 feet, the height before the floodway was activated.

"It is a concern, but we can't worry about it all of the time because if we did we'd get nothing done," Jones said. "My philosophy is you've got to go on like it was there and hope that they'll get it built up."

Jones said that the area doesn't flood every year.

"Maybe Mother Nature will give us a break," he said. "If we miss a year then I think they'll probably get it fixed back to where we were."

The Corps' decision to use the floodway was controversial and made national headlines, as the state of Missouri tried but failed in a legal challenge to prevent the levee breach. Jones is one of dozens of landowners who have joined a class-action lawsuit seeking damages from the Corps as a result of the floodway activation.

The lawsuit contends that the Corps violated the property rights of farmers and landowners because the flowage easements obtained decades ago from the then-property owners were defective. The intentional breaches in the levee caused more than $300 million in damages to land, homes and infrastructure, according to the suit.

In an email to the Beacon, attorney Michael Ponder who is representing the property owners, said the Corps has filed a motion to dismiss the suit, but the court has yet to rule on the motion.

Jones said he doubts that the property owners will ever see a financial settlement from the lawsuit, but that it is important because it sends a message to the Corps -- and to Washington -- that the farmers will not just sit idly by.

"If you're organized you can get more attention," said Jones, who regrets that property owners didn't stage a stronger protest to stop the Corps' action in May.

The landowners are now united because they understand what it means for the floodway to be activated, he said.

"They see the destruction," Jones said. "Everybody in the spillway has been woke up to what can happen."

Rob Koenig of the Beacon staff contributed to this story. 

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.