(Fred Lynch) [Order this photo]
As the residents of the community of about 800 returned to their mud-caked homes this week, signs on their doors warned against drinking the water. The notice covers property owners residing along Highway 3, from the Horseshoe Lake Chamber of Commerce building to Miller City, said chamber president Louis Maze. So, until further notice, a town ravaged by record high water has no safe drinking or bath water in the homes.
Many Olive Branch residents are angry at what they saw as foot-dragging by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in its decision to breach the Birds Point-New Madrid levee in Southeast Missouri, a delay they say cost them their homes.
Alexander County officials were taking several water samples in and around Olive Branch on Thursday and will notify residents when the water is safe, officials said.
Plenty of bottled water can be found at the Horseshoe Lake Community Center, which continues to serve lunch and supper to 150 to 200 people a day, Maze said.
A Federal Emergency Management Agency official will be at the county's maintenance garage in Olive Branch to access damage next week.
"We might get some help, but I ain't counting on it," said Maze, whose home of 35 years took on two feet of water when the Ohio and Mississippi rivers rose up and drowned dozens of homes in the unincorporated community.
Illinois has yet to request a federal disaster declaration, but a FEMA official said the state has requested a preliminary damage assessment.
Like many of his Olive Branch neighbors, Maze blames the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for delaying its decision to detonate Birds Point, an action that deluged 130,000 acres of fertile Southeast Missouri farmland to ease dangerously high river levels.
Jim Melton, an Olive Branch resident for 31 years, lost his home to the floods when the high waters broke through the tens of thousands of sandbags packed to protect the Mel Grah subdivision.
"Do you want to buy a house on a lake?" he said. Like so many other Olive Branch residents, Melton doesn't have flood insurance. He never dreamed the water would reach his subdivision, but his home and his business are ruined by five feet or more of river water. Melton believes his properties would have survived if the corps had blown the levee earlier.
"It couldn't be a coincidence that when they blew the levee the water came out of here like they were pulling a plug in a bathtub," he said.
He speaks of the decision-making process with bitterness in what he believes to be the political protection of wealthy farmers in the floodway. The corps delayed breaching the levee for several days as the river gauge at Cairo, Ill., continued to rise, with officials insisting it would do all it could to avoid activating the floodway. But the river rose, and on May 2, and the corps began its detonation of the levee.
"With us and our modest 1,500-square-foot homes, I guess we didn't count," said Melton, a former president of the Horseshoe Lake Chamber of Commerce. On the other side of the issue, many property owners in and around the floodway say their properties were destroyed for the protection of others, including those in Southern Illinois.
What irritates Melton and others in Olive Branch is that as of Thursday, there was no federal disaster declaration for Illinois, despite scores of homes damaged or lost to the flood. He notes with some aggravation that his neighbors to the west in Missouri already have received the guarantees of loans, grants and other financial benefits of a federal disaster declaration.
"Now we have a president who comes from Illinois and he won't even declare us a disaster area," Melton said, referring to Barack Obama, Illinois' former junior senator.
Patti Thompson, spokeswoman for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, said Missouri received a declaration because of twin disasters -- devastating flooding and the destructive tornado that hit the St. Louis area late last month. She said the agency is beginning an assessment of all the flood damage in about a dozen Illinois counties and will forward its findings to FEMA as soon as possible.