Midwestern farmers await levee decision to rebuild

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 14, 2011 1:23 AM
Midwestern farmers await levee decision to rebuild

By Barton Lorimor

SIKESTON, Missouri (Reuters) - Missouri farmers whose land was flooded after the federal government blew up a Mississippi River levee this spring want to clean up and plant new crops but are waiting to see whether the levee will be rebuilt.

Six weeks after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers breached a levee to allow water to drain into 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland and ease record flooding in Illinois and Kentucky, the agency has yet to say when or how it will repair the levee.

Adding to the uncertainty is a new wave of floods rolling east along the Missouri River toward the Mississippi.

A Corps spokesman said the agency does not foresee a repeat of inundated farmland in this region. But some farmers in the flood plain say they are still concerned that their land would be affected by any change in the Mississippi River's depth. They want the levee rebuilt so they can plant before it gets too late in the season.

Wanda Wallace, who has farmed roughly 1,300 acres in the flood plain with her husband for 40 years, said she is frustrated with the Corps because water only stopped pouring through the broken levee onto her land Thursday. Not knowing when the levee will be repaired prevents her from planning what to do about this year's corn, soybean, wheat and alfalfa crops, she said.

"A lot of the land will be farmable, but there's a whole lot that will not be farmed this year, and it'll be years before it's brought to life," she said.

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon called on the Corps last week to approve a plan to construct a temporary levee to replace the one that was destroyed, so farmers can proceed with planting.

Wallace said flooding caused roughly $2 million in damage to her land, farm buildings and home, which is still up to its roof in water.

Although most of that is covered by flood insurance and her flood plain easement -- a policy offered the federal government offers to flood plain residents that provides some compensation in the event of a flood -- Wallace said it will take a lot of work to remove silt and sand swept into her fields.

In early May, the Corps blew holes in the Birds Point Levee in southeastern Missouri as the river level at Cairo, Illinois, reached record heights and threatened the city of nearly 3,000 people. In support of the decision to blow the levee, the state of Illinois argued that the water could rise over 20 feet in the historic riverfront city if the levee were not breached.

Even with the breach, Illinois towns and farmland suffered severe flooding. State and federal authorities found nearly 1,000 homes and 87 businesses were damaged by the floods in Illinois, according to Governor Pat Quinn's office.

Lifelong Cairo resident Joe Ruiz said threatening floods have become a way of life for residents of southern Illinois. "There was more at stake than Cairo," Ruiz said.

Some southern Illinois officials complained that the levee at Birds Point should have been blown up sooner, to save more Illinois property, especially in the hard-hit river town of Olive Branch.

"If the Corps would have blown that levee two days earlier, Olive Branch would have been saved," said Illinois lawmaker Brandon Phelps, who represents the state's southernmost communities.

Kevin McNulty, a former Corps employee who lives on the outskirts of Olive Branch, agreed.

McNulty, his wife, Jo, and their neighbors have spent the last month tearing out carpeting, furniture, drywall and appliances ruined when floodwaters entered their homes in May.

The couple said they are unsure if they can afford to keep their home now that Jo's job in Cairo has been permanently relocated to a city 60 miles north.

"If we had a guarantee it would never happen again, than I would probably just travel the two hours on the road. But I'm not saying in a couple years we might try to sell it and relocate," Jo McNulty said. "We're just not sure yet what we're going to do."

The couple said they do have a National Flood Insurance Program policy but will still be paying for some repairs out of pocket.

On top of that, Kevin said he is concerned any restorations made to the house in the coming weeks will be in vain if the Missouri River flooding causes water levels to rise. Until he gets his answer, there is still plenty of work to do and options to consider.

"There's no such thing as normal anymore," Kevin McNulty said. "Just yesterday it dawned on me that I am beginning to forget what my routine was and where things were here."

(Writing and reporting by Barton Lorimor; Editing by Mary Wisniewski, Greg McCune and Steve Gorman)