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Back to the spillway: Staying or moving, memories remain

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 28, 2011 - DORENA, MO. -- For 89-year-old Ruben "Brother" Bennett, home is now a trailer parked next to the flood-shattered ruins of his country store located in the southern part of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.

This house on wheels provides Bennett with the basics -- a compact kitchen and a place to live and sleep -- just feet from his old life that is beyond repair. Bennett, who sold groceries and gas for 45 years in the old farming community of Dorena, is a well-known floodway old-timer. He used to live on the second floor of the modest frame structure that he said would cost too much to fix.

"It's a hard project to start when you're 89. And I could not afford to spend $40,000 or $50,000 and get it livable -- not fancy -- just livable," he said, pausing. "I expect to live to be 100, but you never know about that. So I just decided there wasn't no use in trying to do that and maybe pass away in a month -- or before I got it done, even."

Most of the 100 or so homes in the 130,000-acre floodway were damaged beyond repair by the river water that gushed through when the Army Corps of Engineers intentionally breached the levee in early May to alleviate flooding along the Mississippi River.

While the floodway's farmers rushed to plant their fields as soon as the waters began to recede and the soil dried, there were few housing options for the 200 or so residents who used to live there.

In the weeks after the flood, Bennett lived in town with his daughters, until he made up his mind to go home.

"I got up one morning, and I told them girls I'm going to get out of here. I'm going home. They said, 'You've got no place to go.' I said, 'I will have before dark.' And I took off," Bennett said.

By the end of the day, Bennett had bought his new trailer home. And now he's back to the spillway, with an old dog and some cats to keep him company.

"This is my home, and I like it," he said.

Bennett -- known locally as "Brother Bennett" -- has been interviewed by countless reporters about the Corps' decision to activate the floodway last spring. The dramatic nighttime explosions that breached the levee in three places made national headlines. Bennett takes the fuss in stride.

"I've talked to so many different places, I just don't remember," he said with a shrug.

'We're Sliding Backward'

Six months after the river surged through the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway, the countryside is dotted with empty, broken relics of what used to be. Farmhouses, barns, equipment sheds -- and even churches -- await their salvage.

For Ben White who lives in Kirkwood but still owns his family's 135-acre farm near Dorena, the spillway is a place of childhood memories, hard work and good neighbors. He remembers what the community used to be -- even as late as the 1970s when he was in high school -- when people lived, worked, played and prayed here.

"When I graduated from high school there was still a school, stores, the [cotton] gins were still going," White said.

The community was remote but had its own post office, grocers and even a movie theater. White recalls summers spent working on the farm six days a week, taking piano lessons, riding a horse named Dandy and raising hundreds of kittens. But on Sundays, the family would take the day off. They would drive to the nearby Dorena-Hickman Ferry and cross the river for all-day picnics at Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tennessee. Lunch was two roosters fried over an open fire.

"We did this every weekend in the summer," White recalls. "We skipped church but prayed for the roosters."

While today's floodway farmers grow corn and soybeans, the crop back then was cotton, picked by hand by farm families and sharecroppers. White remembers the elementary school in Dorena letting students out for the first two weeks of October so the kids could help with the harvest. After the sixth grade, White attended schools in East Prairie.

He is the fourth Benjamin White to farm in Dorena. His great-grandfather -- Benjamin Columbus White -- bought 131 acres in Mississippi County shortly after the Civil War. White says that farming in Dorena allowed four generations of his family to make a living, pay their taxes and send their children to college. His ancestors were farmers and schoolteachers, and Dorena was their heritage. But that heritage, he says, has been slowly destroyed through the years as residents grappled with the aftermath of the decision by the Corps to create the floodway.

The Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway is part of the flood-control system on the lower Mississippi designed by the Corps after the historic flood of 1927. The Corps bought "flowage rights" from landowners to create the spillway -- a narrow strip about 4 to 12 miles wide and 35 miles long that covers 205 square miles of land.

Before its activation this spring, the floodway had been used only once before: in 1937. Though that flood devastated the countryside 74 years ago, the people of Dorena returned to rebuild their damaged homes and businesses.

A more persistent problem for southern residents of the spillway has been the backwater that enters through a 1,500-foot gap in the levee system near New Madrid during springs when the river is high. That's where the 56-mile long frontline levee that defines the eastern edge of the floodway ends without connecting with the 36-mile setback levee that defines the western edge. Congress first authorized action to close the gap in 1954, but it took years to get funding, with local residents and agricultural interests pitted against state and national environmental groups.

In fall 2006 the Corps began work on the St. John's Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project, which it said would alleviate the human and economic hardships caused by the backwater. The plan to close the gap and install a pumping station at New Madrid was projected to cost more than $100 million. The Environmental Defense Fund and the National Wildlife Federation filed suit to stop the project, arguing that it would have destroyed thousands of acres of wetlands without providing the flood control it promised. The groups challenged the Corps' environmental impact statement.

In September 2007, Judge James Robertson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia sided with the environmental groups and issued an injunction to stop the work, which had already cost upward of $7 million. He ordered the land to be restored to its pre-construction state. The Department of Justice, which represented the Corps, opted not to appeal the judge's decision. The Corps is reviewing the project and is developing a revised environmental impact statement scheduled to be completed in December 2012.

In an interview with the Beacon last summer, U.S. Rep. JoAnn Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, a major supporter of the St. John's project, called the judge's decision to halt it a waste of taxpayer money. She says the legal wrangling around the St. John's project, coupled with the decision to intentionally breach the Birds Point levee, have frustrated floodway residents and fueled distrust of the Corps, the federal government and environmentalists.

The fear commonly expressed by floodway farmers is that by activating the floodway for the first time in 74 years, the Corps has set a precedent for using it again, Emerson said.

"And the environmentalists have wanted nothing more than to grab hold of this whole area for the last 31 years, and probably before that as well," she said.

White says the people in Dorena grew weary of fighting the backwater through the years and began moving off the land. That trend was also fueled by progress and the mechanization of farming. But the damage caused by backwater pales in comparison to the destruction caused by the levee breaches.

"This is a fine agricultural factory,'' White said, pointing to the efficiency of the farmers who work some of the best farmland in the nation. He fears that the intentional levee breach in May might have dealt a final blow for residents who still called Dorena home.

It is a concern shared by other landowners, including McIvan Jones, a longtime neighbor of White's who still farms in the floodway. 

"We fought and fought and fought for 50 years to get that gap closed to get rid of that backwater, but that will never happen now," Jones said. "Now, we're just hoping it will get back to what it was. We're sliding backwards."

More Than Farmland

Questions over floodway easements and compensation for damage are at the heart of a lawsuit filed by property owners against the Corps. In the meantime, the Corps has been working to repair the levee breaches, even as farmers keep a wary eye on river levels. The Corps has said it is committed to restoring the levee to its pre-activation height -- 62.5 feet on the river gage at Cairo, Ill. -- as funding becomes available. The temporary plan is to rebuild to 55 feet, a decision that has further frustrated floodway farmers.

Jones, whose home was destroyed in the flooding, said the debate over the breaching of the levee was over-simplified by people who didn't understand the floodway. He said the issue wasn't about saving farmland versus saving Cairo and other river towns endangered by the swollen Mississippi. The floodway wasn't just farmland, he said.

"It's home to us," he said. "It's hard to get people to understand our lifestyle that we had down here. Why would you want to live in this area? We were born and raised here. We were used to the backwater, but we're not used to the thing that happened this last time."

The spillway has good land that should be valued, Jones said. And then he quoted a woman who used to own a farm in the area.

"She always said, 'They don't make any more land,'" he said.

Though he grew up in the spillway, Jones is among the longtime residents who will rebuild elsewhere.

"I'd prefer to build here than anywhere in the world," he said. "But I can't think about doing it in the spillway anymore. It may not have a flood like that again in 100 years but I don't want to worry about it every year."

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.