One year after the flood, farmers in Birds Point spillway work to reclaim their lives
Wanda Wallace refers to these rustic wooden stairs as her “steps to a new life” that she and her husband are building atop earthen mounds on their farm in the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway. That farm was wrecked by a flood unleashed a year ago when the Army Corps of Engineers blew three holes in the levee to alleviate flooding on the Mississippi River.
The stairs lead upward, to a duplex that the Wallaces are constructing for farmhands who help them work their 1,600 acres of remote farmland near Big Oak Tree State Park in Mississippi County. They have already erected a new machine shop for their equipment atop a second mound and will soon begin constructing a new home to replace their beloved brick ranch of 35 years that was left in ruins by the wall of water that swept through the floodway last May.
Milus Wallace has moved sand and sediment deposited on their farmland by the river to form these mounds that stand about 14 feet high above ground level. The structures on top will be at 301 feet above sea level — 3 feet above last spring’s raging floodwater and 2 feet above the requirement for flood insurance.
He plans to build their new home — a log cabin — on stilts, similar to oceanfront properties, because he is determined that it will ride out the rising water, should the Corps activate the floodway again.
“I’d fish off my front porch,” said Wallace, who talks about the year-long ordeal to rebuild his “little slice of heaven” with measured optimism, laced with resignation and practicality.
“We’ll survive this deal,” he said. “We’re doing pretty well.”
'Once they use it, they’ll use it again'
The Wallaces’ farm was among the 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland inundated by floodwater after the Corps of Engineers intentionally breached the levee in three places in an attempt to lessen flooding in Cairo, Ill., and other towns along the Mississippi River. The floodway — or, spillway, as it is called by local residents — is a narrow strip, about 4 to 12 miles wide and 35 miles long, that covers 204 square miles of land. It is part of the Corps’ flood control system on the lower Mississippi, developed after the historic and devastating flood of 1927. Before its activation last May, the floodway had been used only once before — in 1937.
The Wallaces are among just a handful of folks who are rebuilding homes in the floodway, where there were just under 100 houses, and about 200 residents, before the breach. Milus Wallace said he doubts that most will ever return to live on their property, but they might opt to bring in mobile homes so that workers can stay on the land to keep watch over expensive farm equipment.
“In many cases, the destroyed houses remain. There’s just a lot of people disgusted, and until they see what the Corps does they aren’t thinking about building back,” said Wallace who has employed five workers for the past year to help him clean up and rebuild his farm.
Wallace said that he can afford to rebuild because he had both flood and crop insurance, and he wants to live on his land, rather than commute from outside the floodway.
“It’s silly for me to drive 30 miles back and forth,” he said. “We like to work from daylight to dark. I’d just drive home and sleep and then have to come back.”
Wallace, whose land is located next to the second of three holes blown in the levee — the second crevasse — has kept a wary watch as the Corps has worked to rebuild the levee. He fears the Corps will use the floodway again, unless lawmakers take action to prevent it.
“Most of the time you can’t break the law, or you’re held accountable. That’s the only way we can be safe,” he said. “Once they use it, they’ll use it again.”
Wallace said he has reclaimed most of his acreage that had been covered by river sand, and he plans to move into his new home by Christmas. More bothersome, he says, is the feeling shared by many floodway residents who remain unconvinced that the Corps took the right action last year.
“You could cope with it if you really felt it helped somebody else, but when you don’t feel like it helped anybody else, it puts a thorn in your saddle,” said Wallace, who drove his truck onto the levee last year to watch the first explosion on the night of May 2. “It was a sick, gut feeling when they blowed it up because you knew what you had was going to be wiped away. But it still didn’t bother me to the point that it bothers me today — because I feel that they didn’t have to do it.”
He said he hopes the Corps will use alternative flood control methods in the future, such as a better use of reservoirs along nearby rivers, or allowing the Mississippi to overtop the levee naturally to limit the damage in the floodway.
Controversy lives on
Controversy swirled along with the raging Mississippi a year ago, as the spillway farmers tried to make their case against the floodway activation — an action the Corps hadn’t employed in 74 years.
National media descended upon the Bootheel to cover the dispute, which was seen by many as simply a case of saving cities vs. saving farmland. After a failed legal challenge by the state of Missouri, farmers and residents of the floodway were given three days to evacuate livestock and equipment.
Corps of Engineers officials stand by their decision to activate the floodway, but U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, still questions that call.
"I've looked at the hydrology reports and ... the river's crest was not as high as they anticipated. My preference — and that of the locals — would have been to allow natural overtopping" at Birds Point, rather than blasting holes in the levee.
"I do not believe they needed to do that," Emerson said.
James T. Pogue, chief spokesman for the Corps' Memphis District, said Monday that "we are committed to restoring the frontline levee to its original height (equivalent to a 62.5 foot level of protection on the Cairo gauge) as soon as possible, providing we can manage the risks associated with other levee systems in the confluence area."
Flood control work also is under way across the river in Cairo and in Kentucky.
Pogue said the Corps expects to award a construction contract in May "for repairing the floodway levee that will allow us to issue individual task orders for items of work as the plans are completed." The goal is to finish the levee work this year.
The biggest remaining question, Pogue said, is whether to redesign the system of pipes built into the levee that can hold explosives if a future decision is made to activate it. The Corps is also looking into other types of blasting agents than the dynamite used last year.
Emerson said Corps officials "have the money and they have the plan" to finish the levee work this year.
Pogue said that as soon as task orders are awarded — and weather permits — the Corps expects to resume active reconstruction of the frontline levee.
“We are fully funded for this work and our goal will be to have it completed by the end of 2012," he said.
In a letter to the Corps released Tuesday, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., encouraged more focus on restoring the levee’s full protection and planning for future disasters.
“As communities across Missouri attempt to rebuild after a year of unprecedented flooding, it’s critical that the Corps prioritizes its limited resources to protect local farmers, families and job creators that have been impacted by disaster,” Blunt wrote. “One year after the Birds Point Levee breach, it is simply unacceptable that full restoration still remains months away. Flood protection for people and property should always be the primary goal in river policy. Our communities cannot return to normal until we fully restore what was lost and rebuild stronger.”
Rebuilding a gathering place
As the Wallaces work to rebuild their farm, their new structures rise high in the blue Missouri sky above rocked terraces reminiscent of Mayan temples. This isn’t the first time mound building has occurred in the spillway. Nearby Towosahgy State Historic Site has mounds that were built by Mississippian Indians between 1000 and 1400 A.D.
The flood changed life in the spillway in many ways, the Wallaces say. Because few of their neighbors have returned to live here, it is just as rare for them to see a passing car these days as some of the wildlife that used to flourish in the floodway.
“The flood devastated the wildlife,” Milus Wallace said. “I haven’t seen a pair of quail. Not one cottontail rabbit when we harvested last fall. There are a few swamp rabbits left. Sixty- to 70 percent of deer and wild turkeys were killed. A lot of people used to come down and hunt, but they don’t do that because there’s nothing here.”
The Wallaces, who were known for hosting fish fries for their neighbors, have built a living memorial, of sorts, to the Flood of ‘11: a floating “fish house” fashioned from the debris of damaged houses and sheds that washed onto their property. The structure of reclaimed wood and tin sits atop three barges in a bayou next to their home site.
“It’ll be a place where we cook fish for people like we used to,” Wallace said.
A blessing, he said, is that the crop he managed to plant on his land after last spring’s flood did well and brought a good price at harvest.
Ironically, he added, this spring has been too dry to allow the spillway farmers to plant.
More about the Spillway
The 2011 flood disrupted lives in towns along the Mississippi River. Mary Delach Leonard reported on the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway, which the Corps of Engineers activated for the first time in nearly 75 years. After the water receded, she returned to see how residents were coping. Robert Koenig added history, context and politics from D.C., including options for river management.
“We couldn’t plant a bean right now and get it up. We haven’t had rain in five or six weeks,” he said. “In some ways, it’s been a blessing because we’ve been able to do a lot of dirt work. You can’t do dirt work when it’s wet. It’s been a blessing in one way, but we’ve got to get some rain before we can get a crop in.”
The Wallaces say they are grateful to their many good friends who helped them pack and move their belongings, livestock and equipment a year ago.
“That’s what’s pulled us through,” Milus Wallace said. “We had so many good friends that came and helped us. Twenty-seven pickups out here trying to get stuff moved. ‘’
They are determined to rebuild their home as a gathering place for family, friends and neighbors, he said.
“It wasn’t a house,” he said. “There’s a big difference. You might live in a house. You might live in an apartment. That’s totally different than your mom and dad’s home. Right today, we still cook fish two and three times a week. Wanda comes down and brings a cooked dinner here every day. We do that every day.”
Robert Koenig, the Beacon’s Washington correspondent, contributed to this story.
Correction: A previous version of this story had an incorrect caption for one of the photos. We regret the error.