Mississippi County residents, farmers worry about impact of activating spillway

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

CHARLESTON, Mo. -- No one in Charleston knows the extent of the damage to be done by the intentional breach of the Birds Point levee.

Even farm families who are going through this for the second time aren't sure what the effect of the levee breach ordered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Monday will be.

Bob Byrne's great-aunt and great-uncle lived in the floodway area in 1937, the last time the corps intentionally breached the levee near where the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers come together.

"They had a two-story house and they moved everything upstairs. The water came within a foot of their second floor. They stayed there, tied a boat to the house and would take that up to the store to get groceries," Byrne said.

In 2011, the situation is different, he said.

"In '37, there was a lot more woods to stop the water. Now, the land has all been cleared so the water can move a lot faster now," he said.

Byrne, who farms 550 acres in the floodway. already had wheat growing in his fields and had planted some corn.

"We've seen one river on the rampage. We've seen the other go on the rampage, but we've never seen 'em both like this at the same time," Byrne said.

Monday afternoon before the breach activation was announced, the Ohio River was at 61.52 feet at Cairo, Ill., higher than the 1937 record crest of 59.5. The Mississippi River at Cape Girardeau was at 46.2 feet, two feet below its record of 48.4 feet in 1993.

Economic effect

Charleston Public Safety director Robert Hearnes said he has serious concerns about the economic impact the levee breach will have on Mississippi County.

The county is 411 square miles, and the floodway area is about half that size, 205 square miles. A portion of the floodway is in neighboring New Madrid County.

"If farmers can't put in a crop, then they can't make money. If they can't make money, they can't buy seed or pay farmhands," he said.

Hearnes fears the economic effects will then spread to nonagriculture businesses in the community.

"We don't have a lot of jobs here to begin with," said Jana Thompson of Charleston.

She's concerned how the levee breach will affect local property tax revenue that support area schools.

She's frustrated to see Missouri's well-maintained levee intentionally breached.

"Why can't they let just let God do the work?" she said. "I'd like to know how General Walsh thinks he's better than God."

Most farmers who own land in the floodway also farm land elsewhere in the county, which will lessen the impact for some, said Brett Matthews, a State Farm insurance agent in Charleston.

His office has been fielding calls about flood insurance, which isn't built into typical homeowner policies, he said. Flood insurance, bought through the Federal Emergency Management Agency's National Flood Insurance Program, must be in effect 30 days before a flood event occurs, so it's too late to add that now, he said.

Farm infrastructure

Those who farm in the floodway have already moved out all the personal property they can.

"There are still farm operations out there that have considerable infrastructure, shops, equipment storage, and irrigation pivots and those things can't move," Matthews said. "A standard irrigation pivot can cost $60,000 to $80,000 per unit, and no one knows exactly how much damage those units will sustain."

In addition to destroying farm infrastructure, the levee breach will also take a toll on county, state and local drainage district infrastructure, he said.

According to Tyler Collier, an area marketer with Delta Growers Association in Charleston, the company worked with farmers last week to help lessen the environmental impact if the floodway is activated. All chemicals, fuels, waste fuels and equipment from the spillway have been moved, including gas and propane tanks. Collier said some propane and fuel tanks were too large to be moved; those were emptied and anchored with chains.

Collier said the company also removed a large quantity of liquid fertilizer.

"If we knew about it, it's gone," he said.

Delta Growers sells fuel, fertilizer and chemicals to most farmers in the spillway.

'The best they can'

Richard Bell, who has 400 acres of farmland in the floodway, said he has faith the corps took all the right steps in making the decision to breach the levee.

"I think they took all things and everybody into consideration and do the best they can for all of us. I really firmly do. Naturally it's not going to be good for everybody. I have land over there that will be affected, too," he said.

Bell believes the corps' design of the levee breach, spread out over 11,000 feet, will minimize the impact on the approximately 130,000 acres in the floodway.

"There will be some wash on it. It will have an adverse effect on some of the land, but I don't think it will be a lot," Bell said. "If they blew the levee at a short distance, say 2,000 feet, I think it would ruin a lot of acres with sand. The way they're planning, instead of coming through and forming and whirlpool and digging all that ol' sand out, it will just run over."

Anita Freeland, who lives north of Charleston near Buffalo Island, several miles away from the levee, is scared.

As an animal lover, she's worried about how breaching the levee will affect wildlife in the floodway. She's already talked to people who have seen deer trying to swim through floodwaters.

"Some of them have drowned trying to get across and others are so exhausted when they do cross, they just lay there and let you walk right up to them," she said.

"There will be a lot of dead animals. Where are they all going to go when they wipe this out?"

mmiller@semissourian.com

388-3646

Map of pertinent addresses

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