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Blown levees, floods and loss: a farm manager’s perspective

Blown levees, floods and loss: a farm manager’s perspective
Bootheel manager tells of week leading up to levee being blown. Initial reactions. Possibilities for a 2011 cropping season.  

On Monday night, Larry Everly waited in the dark for two hours before the Army Corps of Engineers finally blew the Birds Point/New Madrid levee in southeast Missouri.

“I kind of snuck in,” says the veteran farm manager of Wolf Island Farms, whose 5,600 acres is largely inside the Bootheel floodway. “They were trying to keep all the residents away from the levee but I found access to get as close as I could. That was close to where the news crews were. I sat there from 8 p.m. to when it blew around 10:05 p.m.”

When the explosives boomed and sky lit up “it was heart-wrenching, sickening. I’ve been here 36 years and this is home. All water now.”

For more, see Corps blows Birds Point levee, floodway open.

Farmland or Cairo, Ill. — an extraordinary dilemma.

Corps: Missouri levee 'decision point' at hand (UPDATED).

On Tuesday morning, Delta Farm Press spoke with Everly about working in the floodway, the late-April rush to move residents and equipment out of harm’s way, and his expectations post-flood. Among his comments:

On initial reactions to the blown levee…

“We are a bit relieved that the water didn’t seem to rush in as quickly as we anticipated. They may have had a problem blowing the levee. It didn’t totally disappear – it looks like they blew the top off it.

“At this point, it appears from what we can see that everything is still standing. That’s somewhat of a relief. At this point, we’ll take our blessings where we can get them.”

On flood insurance and a class-action suit filed Tuesday by floodway growers…

“I don’t know any details (on the lawsuit) other than that farmers in the floodway have gotten together to file. They want help and relief.

“Almost everyone I’ve talked to in the spillway – it being designed and built to be a flood relief – couldn’t afford flood insurance for buildings. Even though we had insurance against fire and theft, we had no insurance for floods. We’ll have to eat all of that.

“Under any normal flood, we’d have been okay. We all had sense enough to build our sheds, shops and offices on higher ridges to where under a normal flood – including the height of the 1937 flood (the last time the floodway was used) – the water wouldn’t have made it into the buildings.

“But with the Corps blowing the north end of the levee out, it let a wall of water come through that flooded everything.”

When did you first get wind the deliberate breach might be coming down?

“Being on the river, we all strive to watch what it is doing. We had heavy runs running into Easter Sunday. That day, I woke up and saw the projected river forecasts on the news.

“We’re all well aware that, by the Corps standards, that 61.5 feet and rising, at Cairo, Illinois, means they have the option of blowing the levee. So, I started making phone calls on Easter Sunday morning. Several farmers had seen the same forecasts and began moving out that same day.

“Nobody told us to move. We’re sensible folks and, with millions of dollars worth of equipment, it was ‘hey, we’ll start getting it out. There’s a chance something could happen.’

“So, we started with our moving operation the Monday after Easter. It was last Friday (April 29) before anyone with the government came to the farm and said ‘you’ve got to be out.’ That was about 10 a.m. and they said ‘be out by 4 p.m.’

“None of the neighboring farmers got official word that it was mandatory to get out until Friday, which was the deadline.

“By the time they came to the farm, we were doing paperwork, finishing up with the shop and office packing. We kept an air compressor out in case someone blew a tire but the rest of the equipment had been moved out Thursday morning.”

On floodway residents’ feelings regarding saving Cairo, Ill., versus flooding farmland…

“Feelings about this are all over the place.

“The truth is, Cairo could have been evacuated and flooded and it wouldn’t have caused the economic devastation that has been caused by flooding the farmland.

“Please understand I am not for farmland over people. I want everyone to be safe.

“But by flooding this ground – and we’re being told it will be 10 to 14 days before there’s any drop in the water level – we’ve pretty much lost the year’s crop. We have eight employees on this farm. Our neighbors have anywhere from eight to 16 employees.

“For the 280 people that they claim lives in the spillway, there are at least that many jobs lost immediately. There’s no ground to farm.

“Then, there’s the trickle-down effect. Everything around East Prairie and New Madrid relies on the farm economy – chemicals, fuel, parts, clothing, food, whatever. When the farm employees have no job, all the businesses suffer. The economic on this area will be staggering. And I haven’t heard anything about that from too many; nobody seems to have really considered that impact.

“Mississippi County and New Madrid County are already hurting for tax revenue. Now, we’re in real dire straits.”

More on Cairo…

“I was born in Cairo. Back when this floodway was designed, that town was the place. Everyone in a 100-mile radius went to Cairo to shop, eat, and go to the movies. It was a thriving, booming town.

“Over the years, when the riverboats quit having to stop and pay tariffs, Cairo began to shrink. And that hasn’t stopped since. There’s not much left in Cairo.

“My opinion is the economics of this weren’t looked at, at all, before the levee was blown. I just wonder what taking 130,000 acres out of production will do to food prices? Feed prices for cattle and hogs?”

On the second levee handling the floodway water…

“I have some concerns but feel pretty confident the levee will hold. For several years it seemed there was very little maintenance done on it. But over the last decade, or so, the district has maintained it much better.

“There are a few spots that have had slides when there’s a lot of rain. But mostly it’s not a big deal – they’ve patched most of them.

“Personally, I’m not too concerned with the second levee blowing out. Then again, I wasn’t as concerned with the frontline levee failing as the Corps seemed to be.”

Any idea when you can get back into the fields?

“It all depends on how much water they’ve turned loose. There’s a lot of water left to come down in the Missouri River, too.

“If, for whatever reason, the river begins to fall in a week it would still take around a month to get all the water out of the spillway. Even then, there will be spots that retain water.

“For the most part, the forecasts tell us once the river level gets back up to 61- or 62-foot mark it’ll stay there for up to two weeks. If that’s true, no one in the spillway will be able to harvest a bean crop this year. And, best case scenario, all we’d be able to plant this year is beans.

“Even if everything works out for the best, it’ll still be mid-July before we’d be able to work the ground.”

Did you have any wheat planted?

“We lost about 1,800 acres of wheat in its finishing stage. We’d fertilized and put out fungicides. It’s a total loss. We’ll recoup a bit with the insurance, but it won’t even cover costs let alone what we’ll lose by not being able to sell it.

“I haven’t tallied up how much corn we lost. It was already up about 10 inches high.”

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