Flood of 2011 anniversary: Flood's scars remain a year later

Wednesday, May 2, 2012
Pinhook chairwoman Debra Tarver inside her flood ravaged home Monday, April 23, 2012. Tarver lived all but 10 years of her life in Pinhook. Mud cakes the carpet and crunches with each step. Her grandson took his first steps along the hallway from her kitchen. (Laura Simon)

Randy Sutton had heard that the three-star general with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had officially made the decision. He had seen the Missouri National Guard trucks roll through, ordering everyone from their homes. And now, the Mississippi County farmer was along a dark rainy roadway with everyone else awaiting the blast.

The charges were set. After a lifetime of living in the floodway, it was not a hypothetical anymore. They were going to do it.

Still, when the explosions flashed through the night sky, Sutton says he was struck by how honestly surprised he was.

"They really did it," he remembers thinking. "I can't believe this. They turned the water loose on us. Here we go."

The decision to activate the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway, which began a year ago today, was made by Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, who cited record-setting rains that were continuing to pummel the region. The Cairo, Ill., river gauge was at 61 feet and rising. Communities in several states were fighting to keep the waters at bay.

Corps crews detonated the charges along the earthen levee shortly after 10 p.m., intentionally flooding the 130,000-acre floodway. Walsh and other experts said the activation would offer relief to several beleaguered communities in Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky.

Sutton, who had watched the waters wash over land that he had farmed all of his life, said it has been a nerve-racking year since. In the days after, a pilot flew Sutton over the floodway. He saw the place where he had driven a tractor since he was old enough to walk had been replaced by a huge lake, with rooftops jetting out. He recalls that it looked unreal to him.

Mississippi County Sheriff Keith Moore walks towards land owners as they return to Highway 102 Monday, May 9, 2011 after checking on their property in the floodway in Mississippi County. (Laura Simon)

Later, when it took a boat to get to his 2,200-acre farm, Sutton recalls seeing a bobcat that was trapped on a rooftop. He would return several days to toss it meat from a local butcher's shop.

"He was just trying to survive," Sutton said. "I can relate."

Sutton didn't even know if he would be able to get a crop in. He tried not to worry. He knows the Bible says not to worry about tomorrow, that God will provide. But he couldn't help it. He tried to put a brave face on as often as he could so his worry didn't infect his wife or three children.

Insurance worked for those who had it. Most of the residents have moved out. Now only farmers and their workers remain. That's all that will be left of the community that used to have thousands of residents years ago. Now, only a handful remain.

Cars used to zip by all day as Sutton farmed. Now, he sees only one or two. He occasionally sees black smoke in the distance as another house burns. But he acknowledges now he actually came through with a decent crop. He didn't make much money, but the losses weren't as severe as they could have been.

"Through all of it, I feel like I was still very blessed," Sutton said. "I was able to pay the banker back, and I lived through it. The floodway will never be the same. But we survived."

Highway 102 as seen on April 11, 2012. This is the same spot that Mississippi County Sheriff Keith Moore walked towards land owners as they returned to Highway 102 Monday, May 9, 2011 after checking on their property in the floodway in Mississippi County. (Laura Simon)

Not everything did. Pinhook, a largely African-American village in the floodway, has seen its more than 250 residents scatter. The floodwaters ravaged their homes. The 35 who lived there at the time of the flood now live in places like Sikeston, Wyatt, Charleston and East Prairie, Mo. Debra Tarver, who was the town mayor, says the close-knit community still tries to get together once a month. They still hope that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will relocate the community as a whole, but some officials have suggested it seems unlikely.

Two homes have burned. One resident has died since. Even the Union Baptist Church, sacred to the people of Pinhook, has succumbed to fire since the flooding, Tarver said.

But Tarver refuses to be bitter.

Tonight, Tarver said, the residents are gathering for a dinner to try to plan for Pinhook Day. They want to still have the annual event that drew people back to their hometown from as far away as New York City. They're also planning a memorial walk and fundraiser later this month, she said.

"It may have broken us apart," she said. "But it didn't take away our drive to get back together. It did not break our spirit at all. They haven't broken that at all."

Like many of the homes in Pinhook, water got into Tarver's home several feet high. It ruined walls, carpets and possessions. It was unliveable. Some of the people of Pinhook had insurance and others didn't, she said.

Tarver likes to remember Pinhook at its best, she said, a community of "brothers and sisters" who looked after each other. Friends and neighbors scattered across side roads and down different turns, she said.

"Nothing about us has changed other than our homes being torn up," she said. "If someone needs help, we know about it. It's one big family, and I don't think that family will ever die. Just because that happened to us doesn't mean we're going to lay down and play dead. We're Pinhook and will always be Pinhook."

But the flood was felt in many other communities outside of the floodway, too. Those people suffered losses at about this time last year, too. Milton Pecord, 91, of Olive Branch, Ill., watched as the people in his community fought to keep waters out of their homes. But after two levees broke, it basically became a lost cause.

Pecord had lived in his house for nearly 40 years when the flood crept into it last year. It ruined insulation, walls, windows and floors.

Pecord is no stranger to floods.

Chris Byasse hands Eric Thomure a life jacket before setting off for his grandfather Claude Thomure's property Monday, May 9, 2011 in the Mississippi County floodway. (Laura Simon)

"But this one was the worst flood we've ever had around here," he said.

Pecord considered participating in the buyout, but instead took FEMA's offer of $45,600 to make repairs. He went to live with his daughter on higher ground while the work was being done.

But Pecord has no complaints about the way the government reacted. The money was in the bank before he even knew it was there, he said.

"I hated to be out of my home for eight months," Pecord said. "But I've taken out $30,000 worth of flood insurance with the intention of staying. My plan right now is to stay here until I die."

Claude Thomure sets on farm equipment on his farm Wednesday, April 11, 2012 in the Mississippi County floodway. (Laura Simon)

Several other residents of Olive Branch are still hopeful of participating in a federal buyout. Patti Thompson with the Illinois Emergency Management Agency said Tuesday that the application is still under review. The state had questions about the application, asking for corrections to addresses and updates to exclude applicants who had died. The homeowners have sent the information back to FEMA, which is still reviewing the application, she said. She did not know how much longer the review would last.

A year later, the flood-affected residents said the future is still uncertain. Sutton worries that the corps will activate the floodway again in the future. The repairs are being made and the access wells are being installed so that it could be used again if need be. Tarver prays that her splintered community can be made whole again.

Worry abounds.

But Sutton still thinks about that bobcat from time to time. He even has photos of it.

"I'd like to think he made it and is still out there somewhere," Sutton said.



Pertinent address:

Olive Branch, IL

Pinhook, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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