The sky can’t bleed forever, but it seemed that way in the spring of 2011.
In heavy rain on April 25, three barges loaded with explosives pulled away from Memphis, Tenn., heading upriver to punch a hole in one of the longest manmade structures on Earth. The battle-ready flotilla carried 192 barrels of aluminum powder; six 2,500-gallon tanks of liquid blasting agent; two mix-pump units; two forklifts; two bulldozers; and two backhoes. Waiting 218 river miles away in southeast Missouri, roughly 60 farming families looked out across land shaped by the labor of multiple generations and wondered if the Corps of Engineers would blow the levee.
When the rights of agricultural producers clash with government regulation, federal law holds the trump cards. Cairo, Ill., (pop. 2,800) sits at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. With waters rising, Cairo was the Corps’ political pressure point. Five miles downstream, on the opposite bank in Missouri, Birds Point levee was the Corps’ release valve. Overtopping be damned, on the night of May 2, the levee was blown and 130,000 acres of farmland were swallowed. The water is long-gone, but the scars of shattered legacies remain.
During April, ice pick rains hammered the Mississippi Valley in Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee, and rising water brought forth the flood ghosts of 1927. One storm’s cease birthed another’s beginning in a sister state. As river levels rose, the discretionary decision to blow the levee fell on the shoulders of one man: Major General Michael Walsh, Commander of the Mississippi Valley Division. From Walsh’s perspective, he faced the excruciating dilemma to either operate the Birds Point floodway system and swamp a massive swathe of Missouri, or allow the river to pour over the levee and flood towns like Cairo. As engineers mixed a binary blasting agent and pumped it into the levee at Birds Point, Walsh’s final decision to create an immediate drawdown at Cairo took the form of nine separate blasts across nine 1,000’ sections.
Producer Kevin Mainord couldn’t stomach going up to the levee to watch the explosive flash. Instead, he sat in his living room, nine miles as the crow flies from the detonation site, counting time as a condemned man when he heard the blasts and felt the repercussions. “Suddenly, it made me realize how much control the federal government has over our lives,” he remembers. “It was the power of big government and I had no say.”
“An engineer is trained to protect,” says Bob Anderson, Public Affairs Officer, Mississippi Valley Division, Mississippi River Commission. “Ultimately, Gen. Walsh was protecting people who weren’t supposed to be flooded. If we didn’t activate, we’d be held accountable. It’s not just Cairo, other towns and communities in Illinois would have also been affected.”
Milus Wallace farms 2,000 acres against the levee and is used to backwater damage from the river, but was stunned by the Corps’ decision.
“I felt my heart at my knees," he says. "I understand the big picture, but it wasn’t right to wash away my farm. Water poured through the blown hole for six weeks.”
One stretch of Wallace’s ground was filled with 250 acres of sand, 9’ deep tapering down to 1’. Sheds, shop, house, and grain bins were all gone, and every ditch on his land filled with a forest of debris. “The Corps were good people individually,” he says, “but they should have let things go natural and left the levee alone.”
Five years later, scars on the landscape still remain on the floodway: scouring, massive erosion, huge sand deposits, abandoned homes and much more. Who pays for the damages? Crop insurance technically only covers natural disasters, but human actions open a wide avenue of coverage questions. Compensation is a tangled issue and a big part of lingering bitterness.
How to calculate yield reduction and loss over time? Mainord farms 10,000 acres in Mississippi, Scott and New Madrid counties, with half of his ground inside the floodway. (As the ground zero of affected acreage, Mississippi County contains three-quarters of the floodway.) “The government hasn’t had to reimburse people,” Mainord says. “No farmer I’m aware of got compensation.”
Many people in the floodway had no property insurance and were left with a total loss, adds Wallace. “The U.S. government blows the levee and won’t rebuild somebody’s house, but goes overseas and blows up the bad guys and rebuilds their cities. That makes no sense to me and I don’t think it makes sense to U.S. taxpayers.”
J. Michael Ponder, partner with Cook, Barkett, Ponder & Wolz, in Cape Girardeau, Mo., has filed a class action suit against the Corps with a number of representative families from the spillway. The case could lay down heavy precedent, at least regarding farms adjacent to the Mississippi River and part of the overall floodplain. “We think this lawsuit is an excellent test case for the property rights of farmers versus the government’s right to regulate the river,” Ponder says.
The levee breach took two years and $50 million to rebuild, but Birds Point is still considered by the Corps to be the best present solution to flooding. Despite Cairo’s location at the juncture of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, the city remains under protection. Birds Point is therefore the tip of the spear as the relief point. Bluntly stated, if necessary, Birds Point will be blown again to lance the boil.
As mayor of East Prairie and as a board member on the St. John’s Levee District, Mainord is pushing hard for a new plan. He’s adamant the levee be allowed to overtop. Cairo’s flood wall is 64’ above mean sea level and the highest spot at the Birds Point levee is 62’ above mean sea level.
“Cairo is a political mess and no boomtown,” he says. “Think about the economics of hundreds of millions in damage across this floodway. To think it’s rebuilt just to blow it again? Is this what U.S. taxpayers want?”
The day of high floodwater is sure to return. It’s a frustrating waiting game for producers, particularly those who farm entirely in the floodway.
“It’s been heart-wrenching to see these old family operations get slammed,” Mainord says. “I’ve watched my farming community in pain because of unnecessary governmental policies. The government has all the control and we know it.”
“Sometimes I still can’t believe they blew the levee,” Wallace adds. “I understand everything they claimed about saving lives and property elsewhere. Just don’t try to tell me this was a success.”