Flood of 2011 anniversary: MoDOT engineer acted alone on Highway 60 berm; residents have filed lawsuit

Thursday, April 26, 2012
Residents of Morehouse, Mo. use a boat and a truck to move belongings to dry ground Saturday, April 30, 2011. (Laura Simon)

MOREHOUSE, Mo. -- Ed Stinnett kept a close eye on the red marks he and other Morehouse residents spray-painted on buildings in late April last year. During the afternoon and into the late evening of April 27, they checked them every hour. They knew more water was coming, and they might have to get going. They might have to leave their homes and businesses behind, at least for a few days.

A few blocks to the south, the highway began to disappear. Mark Shelton, district engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation's southeast region, watched traffic back up as reluctant drivers slowly entered lanes covered in cold, muddy water.

Shortly before 5 p.m., Shelton made what he now calls an "in-the-field, spur-of-the-moment decision."

He ordered MoDOT crews to build a berm along U.S. 60 to keep the road open. Major highways and secondary roads throughout Southeast Missouri were already shut down or closing due to days of relentless rain. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were talking about flooding a 130,000-acre spillway the next county over. MoDOT knew, Shelton said, this amount of rain, this flooding, was a series of events that was unprecedented.

Many in Morehouse already had water slowly approaching their doorsteps when they turned in for the night. But they awoke the next morning to several inches in their homes and say MoDOT's berm is to blame. Several property owners filed suit against the Missouri Transportation and Highways Commission in October, alleging when workers built the berm "under the cover of darkness" that they "caused water to flow violently and quickly into the town of Morehouse," which caused extensive damage to many buildings, mainly homes.

"At the time, we didn't realize what was going on, through all the rain and levee breaches," Shelton said. He couldn't imagine the possible effect on the region's drainage system and roads if the corps blew the levee, if there was more rain or if other smaller levees gave way. U.S. 60 had to be kept open, he said.

Shelton said he consulted with no other state officials or employees when he made the call to build the berm.

"We were just in the fight the battle mode. That's what happened," he said.

Morehouse Mayor Pete Leija said city officials and residents weren't notified at all that the highway department was building the berm. Many residents, especially in the south and southwest sections of town where flooding was worst, were angry with him, he said. But he didn't know any better than they what was coming, he said. He understood the need at the time to keep the road open, he said, but MoDOT's actions just weren't fair.

"They could have told us,‘we're fixing to dam your community,'" he said. "‘Tell your people.'"

Stinnett is asking for $25,000 in the suit against the state after his home sustained damage the morning after the berm was built. If the suit eventually settles in his favor, most of his share will go to FEMA, and to attorneys, he said. FEMA paid many of the town's residents within weeks of damage surveys conducted after the flood. Recipients of suit funds would have to pay back the government for recovery assistance. Stinnett said that is OK with him.

"I hope I don't get anything out of it except to put MoDOT in their place," he said.

John W. Koenig Jr., attorney for the highway commission, said MoDOT is claiming no responsibility for flooding damage, and taking action to keep the highway open was actually a "heroic act" by the department.

Koenig said review of aerial footage taken by the National Guard at the time of the flood shows the damage to homes was already done by the time the berm was built.

"You can't drown something that is already drowned," he said.

Koenig said action in the suit is pending because he is waiting for the plaintiffs to respond to a request asking for legal descriptions of properties. The properties allegedly damaged by MoDOT's actions weren't properly identified in the original petition filed in New Madrid County, he said. Those descriptions will need to be matched with aerial footage for the case to continue, he said.

‘May never recover'

Leija said he doesn't know a total dollar cost for the town related to the flooding, but because of residents who abandoned their damaged homes, revenue was lost and that will continue. Leija's office, now in the former Morehouse Elementary School, contains a city map with areas marked in green, yellow and pink. Pink represents the 100 or so properties condemned from flood damage. Around 75 have since been torn down. The remaining are only so because the city has been unable to reach the owners or need permission from more than one owner of a property to give the go-ahead. Demolishing the ruins the flood left behind will now be at property owners' expense since the deadline has passed for federal assistance, Leija said.

Morehouse Elementary, which was under the supervision of the Sikeston School District, closed indefinitely last June to save the district money. School board member Scott Crumpecker said the primary reason to close the school was related to financials, and that the school didn't flood last April. But he still believes the decision to close the school was related, since it came at a time when the future of Morehouse was largely unknown.

"Some of this will be something the community may never recover from," he said.

Crumpecker himself owns a farm that extends into the city limits of Morehouse. His land and home also sustained damage, but he has not yet decided whether he'll join others in seeking reparations. For now he is working his own investigation into what caused the waters to rise quickly overnight.

"There are people in Morehouse that I have no doubt have suffered because of the negligence of MoDOT," he said. "But I am not sure my flooding in particular was because of the berm."

Stinnett said he's sure his was. He lives on the corner of Locust and Levy streets, in an area where most homes took on water in the early morning hours of April 28. He said that between 2 and 8 p.m. April 27, the water levels on buildings in several areas of town marked by spraypaint rose around three inches, but then stopped. A last check of water at 2:30 a.m. showed no change, he said.

His home still had no water when he got up around 6 a.m. the next day and headed to the coffee shop, as he did most mornings. That changed quickly over the next few hours, he said. By 7 a.m., he was receiving reports of water rising in his yard from friends and neighbors. His garage was flooded by midmorning and the water rose over a foot a short time later, leaving two inches standing throughout his home. Not knowing how much more was coming, he said he told his wife they should "just get some clothes and get out of here."

A few streets to the east, Kenny McWilliams' yard contained ankle-deep water the night MoDOT built the berm. When he awoke at 7 a.m. the next morning, it was in his living room, he said. Like Stinnett, he lost all his furniture and appliances and had to replace the floors and walls. He hasn't, however, joined the suit. He said he is satisfied with the payout he received from FEMA.

Still more residents -- likely around 30, according to the mayor's estimates -- may never return to their damaged homes.

Some are skeptical MoDOT's berm exacerbated flooding in Morehouse.

Larry Dowdy, president of the Little River Drainage District, said Morehouse and areas to the town's north and west received 75 percent of their total annual rainfall in a 10-day period in April. Water in drainage ditches generally runs in the direction of Morehouse, and flooding was already occurring, he said.

"There's no way that living in the Delta you can avoid that happening when you get that much rain," Dowdy said. "If the rain had fallen over a 24- or 30-day period, it could have been different. It was just too much too quick."

Improvement projects

The drainage district will perform major maintenance work on three ditches near Morehouse as needed to clean up from the flood. Dowdy said the projects will be completed in the next 18 to 24 months and that the work will take care of normal rainfall runoff.

The corps will also perform dredging of all the major arteries in the drainage system between now and 2013. That project should improve conditions for the future, Dowdy said, but even if the dredging had taken place before the record rainfall, he believes Morehouse would have still seen the same level of flooding.

Shelton acknowledged MoDOT did not contact city officials when the decision was made to build the berm. If the department had foreseen worsening flooding in Morehouse, it would have notified residents to evacuate that afternoon, he said.

"We did follow up the next day when we heard there were problems," he said, "and we checked with SEMA to see if they wanted us to remove that berm."

The will of the state emergency management agency was that U.S. 60 be kept open, he said. MoDOT also brought in pumps to get water out of affected areas as quickly as possible the next morning, he said.

Shelton said that ultimately he is unsure if the berm actually caused water levels to rise in Morehouse.

"It was an awful situation," he said. "Certainly I regret that anybody was flooded out. It was just a very stressful and difficult time."

Leija said MoDOT employees told city officials that no notification was given because the department didn't want to inconvenience anyone.

"Inconvenience?" he asked. "There's a lot of people who lost everything. It might not have seemed like much, but to them it was everything."

U.S. Rep. JoAnn Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, agrees with Morehouse residents who want MoDOT held financially responsible for damages and said the department should have spoken to city officials.

"The fact of the matter is, MoDOT still refuses to accept blame and responsibility for it, which is very frustrating," she said. "I understand what they were trying to do, but if you are going to artificially create a dam that's going to totally flood and cause serious dollars worth of damage, then you need to go and talk to the citizens. You've got to have a meeting and say, ‘these are our alternatives.' You don't just go and do it and all of a sudden people wake up and there is water coming in. It was an outrage," Emerson said.

Despite a long recovery -- which according to Leija is not over yet -- the town is starting to get back to normal, he said. New homes and duplexes have replaced torn-down structures, and a Dollar General store recently opened, bringing in new business. City records damaged in the flood are mostly repaired and stacked waiting to be stored in the old elementary, which is now city hall. Leija said the population is steadying as well, which he knows because he has been closely monitoring the number of utility meters in service. He's also hoping the new space the city has at the school will help them prepare for more disaster, if one comes. He and other city employees are collecting and storing hospital equipment, cots, long-term foods and water. They'll be ready, he said, if it happens again.

eragan@semissourian.com

388-3627

Pertinent address:

Morehouse, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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