Photo: The Ohio River at Cairo, Ill. several days before the levee was breached. Photo by Brent Jones.
Ten years ago tonight, the Army Corps of Engineers breached the Birds Point levee, activating the Birds Point-New Madrid Spillway to relieve flooding at Cairo, Ill. and around the region.
The Ohio River at Cairo had its record crest May 2, 2011, at 61.72 feet. That’s more than 2 feet higher than the previous record of 59.50 in 1937. The Mississippi was also running high: the gauge at Thebes, Ill., a few dozen miles upstream of Cairo, registered its third-highest reading — slightly higher than it was during the summer of 1993.
Rob Koenig and Nancy Fowler reported for the St. Louis Beacon (now part of St. Louis Public Radio):
Deploying a flood-control tool it had not used in 74 years, the Army Corps of Engineers detonated explosives to breach part of the Birds Point levee in Missouri’s Bootheel late Monday to ease the flooding in Cairo, Ill., and elsewhere in the region.
The decision to “activate” the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway shortly after 10 p.m. was made by Maj. Gen. Michael J. Walsh, president of the Mississippi River Commission, who said in a statement that “we must use everything we have . . . to prevent a more catastrophic event.”
When the first segment of the two-mile-long “fuse plug” levee was breached, witnesses reported hearing a loud boom and seeing six orange flashes in the darkness, which prevented journalists from seeing how quickly the swollen Mississippi River rushed into the farmland of the floodway. Another segment of the frontline levee was to be breached by explosion later in the night, and a third segment on Tuesday morning.
In the following days and months, reporter Mary Leonard would travel to Sikeston, East Prairie, Dorena and other communities affected by the Corps’ decision. Here are the stories of some of those who lived there:
SIKESTON – Jack Feezor gazed at a white rooftop just visible in the distance — across the brackish flow of river water that now runs over Highway D in the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.
“It’s history now. We move on,” he said quietly as a handful of local residents took in the sights and sounds from this dry stretch of two-lane pavement at the edge of life as they’ve known it.
As a steamy Friday afternoon melted into a hot June weekend, residents of East Prairie — a town of 3,000 just outside the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway — gathered to welcome about 800 bicyclists who would ride through the surrounding countryside the next morning in an annual event dubbed the Tour de Corn.
The white steeple of the Dorena Baptist Church still stands tall against the blue Missouri sky, despite the flood-shattered condition of this beloved house of worship located in the southeastern section of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.
There will be no Sunday services here ever again, said the Rev. LeRoy Davenport, who served as pastor of the little Southern Baptist church on Highway 77 in Dorena.
“It is through. It will never be rebuilt,” Davenport said.
DORENA, Mo. — Ruben Bennett, 88, was just down the road from his flood-wrecked home on this hot afternoon checking out a new place to live.
Bennett — everyone calls him “Brother Bennett” — is a local icon. He sold groceries and gas for 45 years in the old farming community of Dorena, at the southeast edge of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway. Although his little store has been closed for some time, Bennett still lived on the second floor of the modest white-shingled building trimmed in green — until it was claimed by the floodwaters of the Mississippi.
“You’d have to have a picture of it,” Brother Bennett said. “It tore it all to pieces. Can’t repair it.”
LaWanda Douglas, 84, is on a mission these days, determined to add today’s history to the exhibits at the Mississippi County Historical Museum in East Prairie: front pages of local newspapers chronicling the intentional breach of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway on May 2 by the Army Corps of Engineers.
The most dramatic, she believes, was the May 10 edition of Charleston’s Enterprise-Courier. Spread across the page is a picture of the nighttime explosion of the levee, imprinted with the time and date, and a three-word headline:
They Did It
Milus and Wanda Wallace can’t move heaven, but they are moving tons of earth to live once again on their “slice of heaven” in the southern section of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.
The Wallaces’ Mississippi County farm was among the 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland inundated by floodwater in May after the Army Corps of Engineers intentionally breached the levee in three places to alleviate flooding in Cairo, Ill., and other towns along the Mississippi River.
While workers from the Corps work nearby to repair damage at the center crevasse in the levee, the Wallaces are still trying to put their farm — and their lives — back together.
An autumn Welcome flag on the front porch sends a cheerful greeting to anyone who might drive past the little house that McIvan Jones has renovated on his farm in the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.
There are few signs of life along the roads that meander through the southern section of the spillway near Dorena, Mo., save for the farmers working on this November afternoon to bring in the last of their fall crops and a crew still repairing the Mississippi River levee nearby. Jones’ farm is part of the 130,000 acres of farmland that was inundated by river water last May after the Army Corps of Engineers breached the levee in three places to alleviate flooding along the Mississippi.
Six months later, only a handful of the 200 or so people who used to reside in the floodway have returned to live there.
DORENA, MO. — For 89-year-old Ruben “Brother” Bennett, home is now a trailer parked next to the flood-shattered ruins of his country store located in the southern part of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.
This house on wheels provides Bennett with the basics — a compact kitchen and a place to live and sleep — just feet from his old life that is beyond repair. Bennett, who sold groceries and gas for 45 years in the old farming community of Dorena, is a well-known floodway old-timer. He used to live on the second floor of the modest frame structure that he said would cost too much to fix.