'New and strange terrors': More than 70 years ago, Birds Point levee was breached because of icy winter flood

Sunday, May 8, 2011
Boat crews depart for a search of the Bird's Point-New Madrid floodway area near Anniston, Mo. for people marooned by the high water. (G.D. Fronabarger photo) (Jan. 28, 1937 Southeast Missourian archive)

CHARLESTON, Mo. -- A flood is one thing. A flood of biblical proportions is another. But a freezing flood is unmitigated misery.

Betty Hearnes remembers. She was 9 in the winter of 1937, when the water took nearly everything. What she remembers most is how cold it was.

"People would come out of the spillway with ice all over them. They were freezing," said Hearnes, Missouri's former first lady, from her longtime Charleston home. "I was a child but I knew what was happening."

Betty Hearnes, 83, left, and her sister Julia Warren, 86, of Charleston, Mo., stand on top of the setback levee near Wyatt, Mo., on Friday, May 6, 2011. Hearnes was 10 years old and Warren was 12 years old at the time of the 1937 flood. (Kristin Eberts)

Her older sister, Julia Warren, remembers the mass of humanity gathered in tent cities up and down the levee land and in Charleston, hundreds upon hundreds of displaced and dispirited people seeking refuge.

"They had tents on the levee, and a lot of people moved into the schools and pitched tents there," said Warren, 86.

In the floodway beneath the Birds Point-New Madrid levee, farmers trudged through the fast-moving icy waters, struggling to save their cattle, their hogs, their tools, their possessions. But the water was too much. Many considered themselves lucky to get themselves and their children out alive, said the Mississippi County man who chronicled the Great Flood of '37 in detail.

"This flood has new and strange terrors all its own," wrote Thad Snow in his book "From Missouri: An American Farmer Looks Back," published in November 1954, two months before he died of pneumonia. Snow farmed about 1,000 acres in Mississippi County.

"I have been flooded ... almost always the pitiful labor of evacuation must be done in rain and mud.

Jamee Shelby flips through a scrapbook of newspaper articles and photos from the 1937 flood. Her mother, Julia Warren, 86, was 12 years old at that time. (Kristin Eberts)

"But never before have I, or the oldest gray-beard inhabitant, seen it done over six inches of frozen sleet that affords the crudest footing for man, beast and truck. As I write the sleet is thawing slightly, the temperature is 34 [degrees] and the coldest possible rain is falling steadily."

More than 70 years after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dynamited the Birds Point-New Madrid levee that unleashed destruction on some 130,000 acres of fertile farmland, the ruinous floodwaters have returned to the floodway. Some believe the corps' decision to breach the levee last week will prove more devastating to the floodway land and its inhabitants than the action in 1937 -- the only other time the corps operated its plan to take pressure off communities up and down the Mississippi River and its tributaries. It's much too early to tell. Even as the waters recede in some parts of the lower Mississippi River and Ohio River valleys, the flood fight is far from over elsewhere.

As one historian put it, there are many lessons, often painful lessons, to learn from the river. The Great Flood of '37 serves as an example of what the river can do.

'Measure of all floods'

Just 10 years before, the big one hit, and it was one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history.

The flood of 1927 submerged more than 16 million acres, killing as many as 500 people and forcing a half-million people from their homes into squalid refugee camps. High waters throughout the Mississippi River's drainage inundated the lower Mississippi Valley. Economic losses were estimated at $1 billion in 1927 dollars, or nearly one-third of the federal budget at that time.

"That was the big flood of 1927, now the measure of all floods," said Frank Nickell, director of the Center for Regional History at Southeast Missouri State University. It was a national crisis, and it changed the rules of engagement on flood control.

Maj. Gen. Edgar Jadwin, chief of engineers for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, drew up a plan requiring that the water be dispersed through controlled outlets and floodways as well as confined between levees. Following contentious debate, Congress approved the Jadwin Plan through the 1928 Flood Control Act and placed its implementation under the control of the Corps of Engineers. The federal government was to spend $60.8 million in flood-control efforts between Cape Girardeau and the mouth of the Arkansas River, a price tag that included the creation of the 133,000-acre floodway to serve the Birds Point-New Madrid levee if need be.

Gathering rains

The rain started in early January in Pennsylvania and Ohio. It rained hard, nonstop.

"It was so heavy, in fact, people who had lung disorders died because there was so little oxygen in the air," Nickell said.

All that moisture fed the Ohio River, coming down like a wall of water from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Ill. The Great Flood of 1937 was expansive, deluging much of the central U.S. Cincinnati's high-water mark approached 80 feet at one point; Kentucky's Paducah was crushed, 70 percent of Louisville was flooded, forcing 175,000 residents to flee; and portions of Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois were drowning.

With the river gauge at Cairo, in the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, rising toward a dangerous 59 feet, the corps prepared to detonate the levee at Birds Point and operate the floodway in Missouri's Mississippi and New Madrid counties. They would use dynamite and liquid nitroglycerin to blow holes in the massive levee, unleashing all of that pent-up river water on 205 square miles of alluvial valley land.

The wildlife sensed the cataclysm coming, by many witness accounts. In the days leading up to Jan. 25, 1937, the day the corps detonated the levee, rabbits, raccoons, deer, snakes, turtles gathered en masse near the levee. The anxious animals turned into a feast for hungry sharecroppers, poverty-stricken people trying to survive the Great Depression. The gun-toting men were a disconcerting presence to the corps' guards at the levee.

"They heard all of that shooting as people were hunting rabbits. It made them nervous," Nickell said. "The scene was surreal. You had people shooting shotguns, people setting explosions, and the floodwater was so high and so cold. It was just a very strange event."

The roads were filled with refugees in the days and hours before the breach. Snow recorded the chaos.

"There are several reasons why this flood is more dreadful than any flood of the past. The sleet has made it impossible for anybody except those most favorably situated to salvage much besides their lives," he wrote. "Telephone lines are all broken by the sleet. It has not been possible for all poor people in the floodway to be adequately informed either as to the stages of the river or the state of the levee. All sorts of wild tales have been spread by word-of-mouth and over the radio."

Victims of the flood

Karen Nally Seabaugh, 43, who lives on floodway land her great-grandfather fled from in the flood of '37, said the stories of evacuation were heartbreaking. Farmers frenetically tried to remove their cattle from the floodway before they were consumed by the river. Perry Harmon used a huge wood boat, taking out one cow at a time.

"I guarantee he got those cows out before he touched anything in his house," said Nally Seabaugh, herself an evacuee.

Hearnes vividly remembers the flood of refugees, some 2,000 from the floodway alone. Her father, a Baptist minister and chairman of the Mississippi County Red Cross chapter, was gone for days helping the displaced.

"They had the tent cities by the school yard and all the churches, grade schools. We didn't have places for people to go," she said.

In the days following the breach, the misery continued, punctuated by one of the flood's greatest tragedies. About 25 men, all working to reinforce the levee, drowned when their barge took water and sank in the floodway. In the icy water, the men began to panic. Some tried to climb into the small motorboat pulling the barge. Men on the boat used paddles, hammers, even hatchets, reportedly, to beat the drowning men back for fear they would capsize the boat.

Much like the people of the 1937 flood, the current residents and farmers of the floodway must wait for the waters to recede to fully know how bad the damage is. Many worry that much of the rich farmland could be lost for years to what the river leaves behind.

Hearns, who has survived arguably three "500-year floods," believes the flood of 2011 will prove more destructive than the one of her youth.

"We had so much more to lose this time," she said. "You can't build it all back."

Warren said the people of the region will do what they always do after times of trouble: They'll work hard, do the best they can.

"They need to help each other, and they will. Farmers are pretty good at that," she said.



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