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Hwy 51 bridge at Cairo looking east toward Kentucky Photo by John Allgier

Farmers in the floodway face uncertain future

In late April and early May, heavy rains pumped the Mississippi River to levels not seen since the 1937 flood, backwater crept into 100-year flood plains and scores of tornados swept across the Mid-South. During the chaos, one news item took us back — a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announcement that it was taking steps to intentionally blast the top of a levee in southeast Missouri. The opening of the Birds Point — New Madrid Floodway would save a town, at the expense of prime cropland in the floodway. Here’s how the story unfolded.

For many farmers and landowners living and working in the Birds Point — New Madrid Floodway, the fiery explosions on Birds Point levee Monday night, May 2, were too painful to watch. Their hearts had already been crushed by the announcement hours earlier that the floodway was to be opened for the first time in 74 years.

There would be nothing they could do. That evening, an unstoppable force would literally wash their crops, their season, and perhaps their livelihoods, down the river.

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finally blew the earthen levee at 10:04 p.m., Monday night, and water from the bloated Mississippi River started flowing through the gaps into prime farmland, many of them were elsewhere, too weary and weather-beaten to add any more to their worry.

Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, president of the Mississippi River Commission said the intentional blowing of the Birds Point levee was necessary “to minimize damage to property, structures and to help save lives from historic flood levels.”

Many farmers within the floodway believed that their farmland was being sacrificed to save the small, historic town of Cairo, Ill., which lies on a sliver of land between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

The Corps stated on its Facebook page for those following the operation, that the decision to open the floodway “is not about any one town or place. We are engaged in flood fighting throughout the Mississippi River Valley and we will continue to use every resource available to us.”

Farmers pointed out that a critical threshold in the Corps’ decision-making focused on the river stage level at Cairo. The Corps hoped that opening the floodway would reduce the river stage there by 3 to 4 feet, and lessen the pressure that the two powerful rivers were putting on the town’s leaky levee system.

As decision time neared, the citizens of Cairo were evacuated as sand boils bubbled up around the town’s flood walls and levees, and currents explored the structures for weakness.

After the Corps decided to blow the levee and open the spillway, the final step was delayed several hours by lightening and rain. Finally, Monday night, explosives evaporated the top of the levee, and a curtain of muddy water began to close across a land that had been meticulously sculpted and cultivated — through old-fashioned American grit and determination — on the backs of three generations of farmers.

One of those farmers is John Story, whose grandfather started working this land in the mid-1900s. Story, who farms 4,500 acres of wheat, corn, soybeans and popcorn around Wolf Island, Mo., inside the floodway, lost about 1,400 acres of wheat and 1,200 acres of corn on May 2.

It’s not just the loss of the crop that has sickened Story, who lives in nearby Charleston. There are homes, grain bins, center pivot circuitry and motors that will have to be replaced or rebuilt. And then there’s the soil.

“Nobody knows what to expect when the water goes down, or if it goes down, or what it’s going to look like after it goes down,” Story said. “None of us has ever been able to afford flood insurance in there. So all the damage you see in there, it’s on us. This is going to be simply crippling.”

Story is at a loss to explain where he’ll go from here. “I’m a nervous wreck basically. I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself for the rest of the year. I’ve heard reports that after the 1937 flood, which actually happened early in the year, they weren’t able to do anything with the land again until 1939. God forbid that happens.”

Story was able to get his farm equipment moved out of the area, “so we are going to have equipment and hopefully the financial industry around here will back us and help us get through it. That is going to be a key element of any sort of restructuring. Hopefully, the government will step in and help us get through the financial crunch.”

Employees seek refuge

Meanwhile Story’s employees, several of whom live in the floodway, have found refuge with friends and relatives. One, Story says, “was lucky enough to find an apartment for rent.”

Kevin Mainord, a farmer and mayor of the small town of East Prairie, Mo., just outside the floodway, lost 400 acres of corn and 450 acres of wheat when the spillway opened. The day after, he surveyed the floodway by air.


Mainord doesn’t think water from the spillway rushed in with as much force as the Corps anticipated, which might reduce some scouring of the land. “There’ll be quite a bit of erosion within 3 miles of the fuse plug in the north part of the spillway. But it’s probably too soon to know for sure.”

Mainord said that over the years, millions of dollars and countless man hours have been spent putting fields to grade, installing center pivots and improving drainage in the floodway, which is designated as Consolidated Drainage District No. 1.

Mainord and Story, who is president of the drainage district, tried repeatedly to convince the Corps that blowing the levee was unnecessary. “The floodwall at Cairo was designed to withstand 64 feet on its gage,” Story said. “The crest was never predicted to go over 63 feet. So why did they have to do it?

“It’s almost like they had a toy and wanted to see if it still worked. Now they’re going to have to spend millions of dollars to rebuild the levee in addition to the millions they spent blowing it up. I don’t know if it’s job security or what.”

Eighteen hours after the levee was blown, the river stage at Cairo had dropped by only 1.64 feet, about half of what was expected. Over the next three days, it dropped an additional 0.7 foot and appeared to be leveling off.

On May 2, hours before the floodway was opened, Story and other farmers waited in a tent erected on top of the Birds Point levee. Maj. Gen. Walsh entered and told the group the news. The floodway would be “operated” that evening.

Story told Walsh that the last time the floodway was opened, in 1937, the stage at Cairo dropped only 0.2. “He barked at me that I was misinformed. As it turned out, I was wrong. It was actually 0.4.”

After the announcement, Story didn’t stick around for the opening of the floodway. “I just went home.”

So did Mainord, who farms 5,200 acres within the floodway. “For one thing, I wasn’t interested in being a spectator. I just couldn’t stomach it, to be honest.”

When asked if he had the resolve to farm in the floodway again, Story said, “I should probably reserve that judgment for when the water goes down, and I can see what I’m looking at, but I don’t think I have a lot of options. You have to do what you have to do. That’s farming. That’s what farmers do.” 

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