Sprouting up: Nixon visits slowly healing New Madrid floodway

Thursday, July 14, 2011
Gov. Jay Nixon, left, Col. Wendul Hagler, center, and Missouri state parks director Bill Bryan survey the damage from the first breach in the Birds Point levee Wednesday, July 13, 2011, in Mississippi County. (Laura Simon)

EAST PRAIRIE, Mo. -- Jay Nixon on Wednesday saw wide sections of scoured farmland, broken levees that have yet to be repaired and propane tanks that litter a usually scenic Missouri state park.

But those images from the still lingering effects of the intentional breaching of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway weren't the strongest ones Missouri's governor left with.

"The highlight of this trip has been seeing some of those green sprouts coming up in some areas that were flooded," Nixon said. "I think all of us were very, very fearful that what we were going to see was a situation where we lost a complete year in an entire area."

Nixon returned to Mississippi County on Tuesday for a 2 1/2-hour driving tour of the 130,000-acre floodway that was flooded in May when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers intentionally breached the levees in three spots to reduce floodwaters in other communities.

Nixon's visit, in which he stopped at two of the breach spots and Big Oak Tree State Park, was his first trip back since last month, when the corps began to construct a temporary 51-foot levee with hopes of keeping the Mississippi River from reflooding the fertile farmland.

Nixon also saw that the farmers had returned to work, with the results of their labor already apparent in some places with lush, green rows of soybeans.

"This is an incredible economic asset to our state," Nixon said during his first stop Wednesday near the first breach at Birds Point near Wyatt, Mo. "I'm going to do everything that's within my power to make sure these sprouts keep coming up."

Nixon was optimistic, but he added that much work has yet to be done. The corps is still working on repairing the levee, and several Southeast Missouri farmers and local government officials worried that the work would not be done in time to keep out waters that typically rise in the fall. They also reiterated their concerns to Nixon and others that there is much hand-wringing about the possibility of the corps using explosives to blow the levee in the future.

"Everything's getting better," said John Moreton, who said he has planted quite a bit of soybeans. "But we need the corps to rebuild the levee to where it was previously. We need them to change their operating plan so they don't ever use explosives again."

Neither the governor nor corps officials discussed the permanent fix for the levee, but the last word was that it would be completed by March, though whether that would be with a taller earthen levee or metal gates that could be lifted has yet to be decided. Where the funding would come from is also still a question.

Corps officials who toured the area with Nixon Wednesday said, however, that they have been working 60-hour weeks to get the temporary fix completed by Nov. 30. The temporary fix means rebuilding the earthen berm to a height of 51 feet, short of its pre-blast level of 60.5 feet.

"That's the goal, that's what we're trying to do," project manager Dennis Abernathy said. "We have a shot at the upper and lower breaches to reach that goal, but the center crevasse is going to be a challenge. But we're working long hours to get it done."

Not everyone was happy with the work the corps has done so far. At the spot near the third breach, Nixon's second stop, Mississippi County Sheriff Keith Moore called the rebuilt section of levee inadequate.

"It's a joke," he said. "It wouldn't keep out anything."

Moore was standing near a portion of the levee that hadn't been breached at higher than 60 feet. He pointed to a spot that the corps had rebuilt, pointing out that it wasn't nearly as high.

"If the river goes up, it would hit this area hard," he said. "We just want them to put it back to the way it was. This is iffy for us. This down here is what's really going to concern us. This is not going to hold nothing. If the water comes up, this is all going to be underwater again. That would be a lot of money lost again."

While the farmers have gotten back to work, most of the residents who used to live in the spillway have not returned and probably won't, said Mississippi County Commissioner Robert Jackson, who also toured with Nixon. He doesn't think the corps is moving fast enough, especially with so much at stake in newly planted crops.

"It's very frustrating," said Jackson, who also rents and manages 1,250 acres in the floodway. "We've got a lot of money invested out here in the spillway in these crops. The best thing we're going to do is to keep busy. But there's worries about the river coming back over where they blew the levee."

The threat is always on the minds of the farmers, he said. If the river gauge at Cairo, Ill., -- the guidepost used by the corps when activating the levee -- were to climb to 45 feet from its current 33 feet, the water would return, Jackson said, through the gaps still in the levees.

"It would start seeping back in, and nobody wants that," he said.

The damage that has already been done is substantial, and some of it irreversible. Even government assistance will cost the county, Jackson said, with most requiring 10 to 25 percent local matches. Mississippi County collects $5 million annually in gross receipts annually, he said, with $1 million going to road and bridges, $2 million to general revenue and a sheriff and jail budget that can top $1.5 million.

"We don't have it," Jackson said. "'With the damage that this has caused to our property in the spillway, it won't be worth as much and with the residents that have left, we're not going to collect as much property tax. I'd say a third of our tax base is gone because of the flooding."

The worry remains for farmers in the floodway. They worry about flooding. They worry about the levee. They worry about what they are sure will be reduced yields.

Nixon said he understood those concerns.

"But the best way to fight back floodwaters is with a levee," he said. "That's a good initial response."

Nixon again pledged that he would be there to do all he could.

"We were here before this happened, we were here during the time it happened," he said. "The reason I'm here today is to tell you we're going to be here after. We're going to stay with this until this land is back up and productive."

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

East Prairie, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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