WHEN THE LEVEE BREAKS
July 9, 2011
Bird’s Point Aftermath Isn’t Over
On May 2nd the Army Corps of Engineers blew a two-mile long hole on the north end of Bird’s Point Levee in southeastern Missouri. The levee was holding and doing its job, and the reason given for blowing this levee was to save the already evacuated town of Cairo, Illinois. Then early morning of May 3rd, they blew a “drain hole” in the southern section of the levee. Throughout this article, I ask that the reader keep the dimensions of this levee and the two mile wide hole in the levee in mind. The levee is 64 feet tall, about 200 feet across at the base, and the hole that was blown is now approximately 12 feet below the surrounding ground level. While much has been written about this levee’s destruction, not much has been written of the “on the ground” effects of the ACE action.
When ACE blew the one quarter mile long drain hole, it was only 12 hours after they blew the 2 mile wide hole on the north side of the levee. The water on the south side was still very, very high and instead of letting water out of the flooded area, it let more water in and created a tornado type vortex where the rushing waters met in the midst of the flood way. The influx of water across the two-mile wide blow-hole was estimated to be up to 4.1 million gallons per second. Official records indicate that the blowing of the levee dropped the river levels at Cairo, Illinois less than 1 foot in 24 hours.
The town of Cairo (pronounced Kay-Ro in the local vernacular) is home to approximately 2,800 people. The town is largely boarded up, and much is in poor repair, but still home to more people than the ones whose property was destroyed by the Bird’s Point levee detonation. However, productivity and national security should also factor into intentionally sacrificing one area for another area. When one looks at the aerial view in this video, you get a sense of the size variance between Cairo and the area flooded by the levee detonation. The land mass inundated by water from the blowing of Bird’s Point is approximately 200 square miles. The total landmass of Cairo is 9.1 square miles. There were roughly 100 homes and farms destroyed by the detonation of the levee.
With a myriad of reports from the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN) and even the USDA predicting food price increases and shortages this fall, the destruction of 200 square miles of some of the most fertile farmland in the world should do more than raise an eyebrow. As this story will demonstrate, the actual destruction of this farmland is much more than the loss of one growing season. If several professors get their way, this land may never again be productive farmland. They think it should be left to become wetlands. Considering the state of the national economy, they just may get their way.
Rebuilding the levee would be a monumental expense. While there is a 25 million dollar class action suit in progress against the Army Corps of Engineers by those whose properties and livelihoods were destroyed by the levee being blown, compensation for those filing suit is far from guaranteed.
We Can’t Stay Focused
Since we have been well conditioned to remain interested in topics for only a short amount of time, it isn’t surprising that only one story in mainstream media covered some of the actual destruction that occurred in the Bird’s Point Levee blow up. The levee is, of course, still home to a two mile wide hole; and as anyone familiar with geography knows, the Missouri River flows right into the Mississippi above the Bird’s Point levee breach. This will invariably flood the 200 square miles of land again, and what little has been planted, is very likely to be flooded out again.
In mid June, Bob Parker, a farmer, rancher and realtor (who was also a 2010 contender for the Republican seat in Missouri’s 8th district) took a full day tour of the area affected by the levee’s intentional breach. “People think of this as a ‘flood’,” says Parker, “but this was nothing like the common perception of a flood where the water just rises steadily. This was more like a giant flush, complete with the vortex. The truth about what has happened here must get out to the American people.”
There is a picture of Bob Parker and Al Marshall, a resident and farmer in the area, in front of one of the several mini Grand Canyons created by the massive influx of water. Parker said, “These canyons runs for miles and are at times close to half a mile wide and 15 or 20 feet deep across these fields. How is anyone supposed to farm that?”
Wheat Crop Destroyed and Land Unusable
While interviewing Bob about his tour of the Bird’s Point levee, he shared nearly 100 photos he had taken of the area. In one picture, a man is bent down over flattened wheat. “About 10 percent of this land was in wheat that was ready for harvest when they blew the levee,” says Bob. “The problem is that this wheat was laid down and cannot be tilled under because the equipment just gets tangled and it’s impossible to get underneath the wheat to till the soil.”
Since there is no way to put livestock on this land because there is no fencing in the area, and it would likely kill the stock if they were put on it because of molding under the wheat, there is nothing to do but wait for the wheat to decompose. Some have tried to burn it off, but with the Missouri River flooding into the Mississippi and no levee in place to protect these fields, it would be a lesson in futility to try to reclaim the land under the wheat.
The early wheat crop in the country was devastated all along the Ohio River Valley. Extreme drought in west Kansas has reportedly claimed more wheat, along with the massive flooding along the Missouri River and the destruction of those farms and their crops. All of this adds up to a shortage of a major staple crop in a nation that has severely reduced stockpiling as a hedge against just such disasters.
No FEMA, No Officials, Yet Two Days Later They are Rebuilding the Levee?
Mr. Parker toured the devastated farmland on June 13th. On June 16th there were reports that the Army Corps of Engineers was beginning to rebuild the levee to a height of 51 feet. Articles from June 16th and 17th proudly proclaim the levee is being rebuilt right now, but when you read the articles, it is clear that they are really just in the preparatory stages of thinking about rebuilding the levee. Yet when Bob was there, they only saw one official all day. This singular official was a Missouri Conservation agent.
Residents say that a fifty-one foot levee is of little help because the river reaches that height every year. They do concede that while it is insufficient, it is much better than nothing; they just wonder when it will be done. Currently, there are no cost estimates available regarding the construction of this fifty-one foot replacement levee, and all articles discussing the rebuilding solidly indicate that the project is subject to funding approval.
Parker and the gentlemen giving him the tour went to both the north blow out point and the south “drain hole”, and saw no one from the Army Corps of Engineers at either place. I have asked for photographs of the six man crew that is reportedly working on smoothing the breach in preparation for reconstruction and, as yet, have not received any shots of the crew at Bird’s Point levee. They may very well be there and doing what is reported, but in this day and age, pictures are almost always readily available.
What about Crop Insurance? Or just plain Insurance?
USDA Secretary Vilsack says that the farmers who have lost the chance to grow crops this year will be allowed to receive payments under the crop insurance plan. However, those payments will not meet the total amount already spent by farmers prior to the levee being blown.
The reported estimated costs for early season planting are about 57 million dollars. The Crop Insurance payout is estimated by the University of Missouri to leave a loss of roughly 42.5 million dollars. The estimated crop income loss for this single season (with a low-ball figure attached to corn) is 85 million dollars. None of this covers the homes, outbuildings, irrigation systems, equipment, chemicals, pesticides, or infrastructure destroyed by the blowing of Bird’s Point. There are no available estimates of the actual cost of all the damage.
Also, believe it or not, not every single homeowner in the entire 200 square mile area was a farmer with crop insurance through the USDA. Some of these people were just run of the mill homeowners. Because of the way the Federal government maneuvered to take the land via condemnation in the 1930’s, there is a very serious doubt that any of the homes destroyed will be covered by any type of insurance whatsoever.
According to Parker, the people who were not actually farmers and lost everything in this blow-out, have received only promises. Parker says, “When I was visiting there, two men were cleaning out a house and had hooked up a truck to a flooded vehicle. I stopped and spoke with them, and they were taking their sister’s car in for salvage for $500 so she could feed her children. The house had been their sister’s home and they were taking out anything that still useable. It was totaled. Every house I stopped in smelled like a swamp, and this was no exception.”
Parker said the story was the same with everyone he encountered. They have been told to go to meetings where they are to learn more about what they can expect to receive for their loss of property and at those meetings, they are told to put their names on a list and someone will contact them. Parker continues, “That’s as far as it goes. Put your name on a list and wait. Meanwhile, you still need to eat, pay bills and clothe yourself.”
“Evidently the one constant that residents hear” says Parker, “is that the USDA is going to offer low interest loans for rebuilding. No one knows when this might happen, but that is what they hear.” Parker, who has been in real estate for years continues, “With the levee not having been rebuilt, and the Missouri River still rising and flooding, banks are not going to lend money for construction in an open floodway.”
History is Not Repeating in Mississippi County
Brother Bennett, who was born in the area, and has lived there for nearly all of his 88 years, related his firsthand accounts of previous floods in the New Madrid floodway. This gentleman is a retired US Marine and pastor, and he is not the kind of guy who runs from much of anything. Bennett ran a store on the ground floor of his home and still lives on the second story, which he shared with his wife until she passed away. Bob says, “He was just a wonderful man to visit with; a real inspiration to those of us who love freedom and independence. He ran a small store in the area for years, and about 10 years ago, someone came to rob him and he pulled a .357 on the guy and the would be robber ran away.”
Mr. Bennett explained that he had been there for all these floods, and showed Parker marks he’d made on a post in his store indicating the level the water reached in the 1972 flood, which was about 20 inches from the floor, and again in 1975, which was roughly 23 inches from the first floor height. So when officials came to make sure Bennett had evacuated, he told them he’d made it through all the other floods, and wasn’t going to leave his home for this one. They forcibly evacuated him.
The reports were that the water to be released by blowing the levee might reach heights of four to five feet. However, this time, the water went 20 inches above his second story floor level. So the water level was eight or nine feet higher than the previous all time high and almost twice the projected level.
Trying to Count the Costs
It is seemingly impossible to count the real cost of restoring this 200 square mile area to pre-blow out status. Nearly every single story home in the floodway was covered above ceiling level. When water goes into the attic, it is virtually impossible to save that home unless you rip out all the drywall immediately and get it drying out. The “grand canyons” cannot be readily filled in, and the sand that is covering the southern end isn’t something that can just be swept up.
Considering many of the 678 contracts (see ‘maneuvering’ article above) the government signed with landowners in the 1930’s vary substantially, and that there is no available estimate on the cost of re-building the levee, that one single year of crop loss is about 85 million dollars, that this land will largely be unworkable for several years if ever, and that insurance pay outs are highly questionable because of the contracts mentioned above. It is all just one giant financial question mark.
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What we can know is that the loss of this highly productive farmland will soon be felt by consumers. The loss of livelihood, farms, homes, hopes and dreams are being felt right now, quite heavily in Bird’s Point. No matter what basis you use to assign value to land, homes, and the lives dependent upon them, one thing is certain. The people who live in cities must eat, and cities cannot grow food in sufficient quantities to feed their residents. Literally destroying fertile land to save structures that cannot feed people is a cost that we will all pay in time.
© 2011 Doreen Hannes - All Rights Reserved