An Island in the Flood

July 25, 2009 01:48 PM

From an altitude of about 2,500' on June 20, 2008, the farmstead appeared to be precariously perched on a tiny island in the midst of the frothing angry Mississippi River. The water was poised just a few feet from the house, a shop building and a number of vehicles parked next to it.

It was one of the first things I saw after taking off from the St. Charles, Mo., airport on a mission to shoot aerial photos of the great flood of 2008. I saw plenty of sad and dramatic sights on my flight, which went north of Quincy, Ill., almost to the Iowa border and back to St. Charles. None, however, caught my eye more than this home making a brave stand against the wild Mississippi. It became the cover image of Farm Journal's Summer 2008 issue, which included more of my shots of the flood's devastation inside.

Who lived in that house, though? Did they make it through the flood OK? I didn't know but was determined to find out.

St. Charles County Extension agent Scott Killpack recently studied the photo and said it looked like Ben Nothstine's house north of town. Before long, I was ascending the driveway up the little hill, thinking that the farmstead looked much different, high and dry.

Ben and Peggy Nothstine, in their 80s, count time in flood years. They live just a quarter-mile from a Mississippi River slough that is separated from the river's main channel by a 1,200-acre island. There was 1973, a bad one, and 1993, a really bad one. By those standards, the 2008 flood was not all that dire. Within three weeks, the water receded. To the Nothstines, that's nothing. In 1993, the flooding started in March and they were out of their house until Christmas.
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In the 2008 flood, they didn't leave the house. For three weeks, they stayed there, surrounded by water. "We never lost phone or electric service. We lost plumbing at the last, so it was a little primitive for a while. We dipped water out of the river for the toilets. We did run out of drinking water,” Ben says.

Sam Bording, a farmer who rents their land, used a boat to bring them water and supplies and once took them to the store. "We weren't going to leave unless we had to,” Ben says.

In the 1993 flood, they had to. That flood broke the old record by 4½' and put 18" of water in the house. Ben built the knoll the house sits on after the 1973 flood put 7' of water in an older house on flat ground. He figured building the new house 440' above sea level would get it high above any flood mark; 1993 proved him wrong, though.

"That was the granddaddy of them all. We sat in the house 22 days. We stayed until water got on the floor, and then moved in with Peggy's mother. We built this house with Sheetrock sideways, halfway up. We replaced the bottom row and the insulation and let it dry and moved back in,” he says.

The Nothstines' high ground proves valuable during flood time for their neighbors, as well. Numerous tractors, combines, four-wheelers and trucks were parked by his shed in anticipation of the 2008 flood.

"I wish I'd built this mound of dirt a little higher. Another foot takes so much more dirt, though. I've got a lot of dollars in this mound, and it took a while to build it,” Ben says.

After the Summer 2008 issue of Farm Journal came out, the Nothstines received 17 calls about the photo from friends around the country. A couple of newspapers also ran aerial photos of their place isolated by floodwater.

"We didn't get hurt too bad this time. If you live this close to the river, you just know you're going to have to deal with high water,” Ben says.


You can e-mail Charles Johnson at

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