Flood of 2011 anniversary: Some farmers still counting what flood cost them

Sunday, April 29, 2012
John Moreton walks along the eroded farmland June 1 in the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.

Farmers feared the worst as water rushed over fields of winter wheat, filled silos storing their profits and engulfed the houses they called home.

A year after the intentional breach of the Birds Point levee by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, fourth-generation floodway farmer Eddie Marshall is still repairing the damage and counting what the breach cost him.

But he's also counting his blessings.

"At the end of the year, we ended up with decent crops. The guy upstairs took care of us. Surprisingly enough, it turned out quite well," Marshall said.

The year turned out a whole lot better than anybody ever envisioned it could, said Kevin Mainord, sales and marketing director for MRM Ag Services near East Prairie.

The remnants of farmland are seen June 1 along Mississippi County Road 310 in the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway. (Laura Simon)

"We were blessed in that our year was down as far as gross dollars, but we still had a pretty profitable year," said Mainord, who also farms in the floodway. "I think most farmers would make the same statement."

Neither Marshall nor Mainord said they had to cut any of their staff as a result of the breach.

"We thought at the time, it might come to that, but we felt like the right thing to do was to keep people employed," Mainord said.

Many anxious farmers stood on the setback levee, watching what they'd prayed wouldn't happen as the Birds Point levee exploded just after 10 p.m. May 2. The Ohio River at Cairo, Ill., set a record that day of 61.7 feet.

Water roared through the 9,000-foot-long hole blown in the levee and according to the corps, within an hour, the Cairo gauge reading had dropped six inches. By 6 a.m. the next morning, it had dropped more than a foot.

Farmers traveled in boats, across more than 20 feet of water in places, to survey the damage.

Immediately after the breach, many in the floodway questioned whether they'd be able to plant a crop at all in 2011.

"There was about 60 days when there was not a lot of activity either inside the spillway or outside the spillway," Mainord said.

Jeff Cox of French Implements, a John Deere dealer in Charleston, Mo., said he thought the company would see a huge loss last year, but that turned out not to be the case.

"Even though the levee was breached, we were really fortunate that a lot of the crop got in, prices were good and yields were better than expected," he said.

Most of the county's wheat crop, however, was left a matted, muddy mess after the waters receded. In most instances these fields had to be bush-hogged or burned off.

While 89,200 acres of wheat were planted in Mississippi and New Madrid counties last year, 24,900 acres less than that were harvested, according to USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. At last year's average yields of 60 bushels per acre at 2011's marketing year price of $6.60 per bushel, that comes to a loss of $9.86 million. However, total wheat production in these counties increased from the previous year because about twice as much wheat had been planted in 2011 than in 2010 and crops outside the floodway did well.

It was June before the water receded and fields could be prepared -- far too late in the season to plant corn.

Last year, 41,400 fewer acres of corn were planted in New Madrid and Mississippi counties than during 2010.

The counties' corn production dropped from 20.6 million bushels in 2010 to 14.4 million bushels last year, according to USDA statistics. At 2011's marketing year price of $6.40 per bushel, that's a loss of $39.8 million.

Once the floodway dried out enough to work the fields, Mississippi and New Madrid county farmers got to work planting soybeans. As a result, 33,000 more acres of soybeans were planted in 2011 than in the previous year, according to USDA statistics. A total of 366,500 acres of soybeans were planted in New Madrid and Mississippi Counties producing 14.9 million bushels of soybeans.

Crop insurance helped those who had it, paying out $21.9 million in indemnities last year in Mississippi and New Madrid counties, according to the USDA's Risk Management Agency, which operates the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation. Most of this was for lost corn crops.

Marshall estimates he lost $1 million worth of wheat, but he had crop insurance that covered the losses. This was the first year he'd purchased insurance on his wheat, but decided to do so because he knew the river was high and there was a lot of snow pack up north.

He's received some assistance from the USDA to repair his farmland. Last year he had 1,500 acres of his 8,000 acre floodway farm damaged to the point he couldn't plant it. This year he's down to just about 300 acres that aren't farmable.

He is filling the crevices in his fields where the river tried to cut a new channel through, which has already cost him nearly $400,000. He expects to spend about that much more before he's finished.

The USDA's Farm Service Agency has obligated approximately $4 million to help restore cropland to pre flood conditions through its Emergency Conservation Program. Through this cost-sharing program, farmers are reimbursed for up to 75 percent of the repair costs they incur. USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service provided $9.2 million to clean out and repair a network of drainage ditches through the floodway. This work is underway now.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency stepped in to help repair roads, bridges and other public infrastructure destroyed in the levee breach. FEMA has obligated $8.3 million for 116 projects in Mississippi County and $2.02 million for 155 projects in New Madrid County.

FEMA also provided assistance to 629 households in New Madrid and Mississippi Counties whose homes were damaged in last spring's flooding. These families received $5.2 million in federal aid.

The Small Business Administration also stepped in to provide home loans for families who lost their homes to the floodwaters. Thirty-nine home loans totaling $2.6 million were granted by the Small Business Administration to families in Mississippi and New Madrid counties. Four business loans for $125,200 were also granted by the SBA in these counties.

It's difficult to try to put a dollar amount on the ultimate effect the levee breach had on the local economy, said Dr. Bruce Domazlicky, director of the Center for Economic and Business Research at Southeast Missouri State University.

During the second half of last year, employment in Mississippi County was about 120 individuals fewer than in the first half, he said. But it's difficult to say how much, if any, of that decline was related to the breach. Still, it's suggestive, Domazlicky said.

Retail sales in Mississippi County increased in the second half of last year, about 6 percent higher than in the first half of the year.

"Overall, the data does not paint a clear picture of the effect on the county," Domazlicky said.



Pertinent address:

Wyatt, Mo.

East Prairie, Mo.

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