Farmers report severe losses after visiting operations in floodway

Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Mississippi County Sheriff Keith Moore walks toward landowners Monday as they return to Highway 102 after checking on their property in the floodway in Mississippi County. (Laura Simon)

CHARLESTON, Mo. -- When Neal Tinnon hopped into his boat Monday morning, he hoped to come back with word that his buildings were still standing, his diesel tanks were anchored down tight and that his farm cat and her newborn kittens had somehow found safety.

But the Southeast Missouri farmer returned to the makeshift shores of Highway 102 a few hours later with a grim expression and an empty pet carrier.

The house was severely damaged, with washed-away porches, busted windows and a saturated interior. One end of the shop building had been uprooted from its foundation and the fuel tanks were nowhere in sight.

"I thought at least the cat might be all right," Tinnon said. "And she would have been all right if they hadn't breached the levee."

For Tinnon and many others who farm in the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway, their first visit home in a week resulted in little good news.

Mississippi County Sheriff Keith Moore allowed land owners to inspect the damage that was caused by the Mississippi River, which now is flowing through their homes and over their property, roadways and farming equipment. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last week activated the floodway in an effort to reduce historic floodwaters in communities in Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky.

For eight hours Monday, the farmers put on life jackets and used boats normally reserved for fishing to get to and survey their property.

Many left anxious yet hopeful; many came back dejected.

Jackie Barker, for example, is a third-generation farmer whose grandfather fought back the waters from the family farm home that was built 114 years ago. Barker's father battled the infamous flood of 1937, when Barker, now 82, was just a boy. Barker remembers that flood well.

This one is at least as bad, he said Monday after looking over his 271 acres where he -- like most of the other floodway farmers -- tend to soybeans, corn and wheat.

Barker's eight grain bins are still standing, but he knows the fans and other electrical equipment inside are shot. The house his grandfather built stood up to the water reasonably well, but the other buildings didn't. Windows are gone, doors are destroyed and he said he hates to even think about other damage that he couldn't see below the water's murky surface.

"It's all in pretty rough shape," he said.

But Barker said farming is in his blood. For now, he is content to simply wait until the water subsides.

When asked if he's considered quitting during this trying week, Barker just laughed.

"The only thing I ever quit in my life is smoking," he said. "I hope to clean it up and stay around until another flood comes. My parents went through it, and they got over it and I will, too."

Moore said at least 50 farmers and property owners inspected their property. He intends to allow it again today as long as the weather cooperates.

Moore heard similar stories from farmers about what they'd found when they reached their places.

"A lot of their property is destroyed," Moore said. "It's gone."

No accidents were reported, but one boat had engine trouble and the farmers aboard had to be given a lift back to shore, Moore said. Only property owners or their employees were allowed onto the floodway, Moore said. Life jackets were required and they had to check in with law enforcement before they got into the water and when they got out at three designated areas, he said.

After 4 p.m. when the time expired, all were accounted for, Moore said. Missouri National Guard soldiers manned checkpoints and the Missouri State Highway Patrol's Water Patrol had officers and boats at each entry point.

As land owners inspected their property, Gov. Jay Nixon Monday announced that he asked the USDA's Farm Service Agency to start damage assessments "as soon as possible" for 56 Missouri counties hit by storms and severe flooding.

The request is the first step in declaring the counties as primary disaster areas -- those where at least 30 percent of the estimated yield crop will be lost or where individual farmers suffer production losses of more than 30 percent.

A disaster declaration would allow eligible farmers to be considered for USDA assistance.

Nixon's request included several Southeast Missouri counties, including Bollinger, Cape Girardeau, Madison, Mississippi, New Madrid, Pemiscot, Perry, Ste. Genevieve, Scott, Stoddard and others.

On Monday night, President Obama declared five Missouri counties -- Butler, Mississippi and New Madrid among them -- major disaster areas. The declaration means eligible individuals and households in those counties can seek federal assistance for uninsured losses from the storms and flooding.

But Sam Barker, a cousin to Jackie, said he was suspicious of any help the government might be promising. Barker farms 2,000 acres in the 130,000-acre spillway and he said he feels like the farmers were "sacrificial lambs" to save other communities.

"They ruined our livelihood, the destroyed the infrastructure down here and they took away our only defense against this raging river," he said Monday after looking over his property.

"They did it and that's fine, but if they're going to sacrifice us, they need to come here and make it right. They need to compensate us for this destruction."

When told of the governor's request, he remained dubious.

"I'm the third generation to go through a flood," he said. "This one remains to be seen, but they didn't get a thing out of it."

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

Charleston, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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