Birds Point levee breach dooms tiny African-American community

Sunday, June 19, 2011 | 6:36 p.m. CDT

PINHOOK — A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decision to blow up the levee at Birds Point in eastern Missouri last month appears to have sealed the fate of a tiny community comprised primarily of African-Americans.

The Southeast Missourian reported that Pinhook, which is about 10 miles from East Prairie, took a big hit when water from the bloated Mississippi River flowed through the town of about 30 residents. At one point in the 1960s, the village was home to more than 250 people. Today, few live there, and there's not much chance of anyone moving back.

"It's never going to recover," said George Williams, who has lived in the town for nearly six decades. "It won't. It's over with."

The corps blew holes in the levee in early May to relieve pressure on communities upriver that were threatened by floodwaters. When residents of Pinhook heard of plans to breach the levee, the collection of friends, family and relatives who lived there headed for higher ground.

The residents scattered, renting apartments in Sikeston and moving in with friends in East Prairie, though some moved even farther away. Many thought they would be able to return after the water receded, but inspections have shown that might not be possible.

Mayor Debra Tarver said residents have asked the government to relocate them as one unit to another area in Mississippi County. The people want to stay together, and they believe that because the government destroyed their homes by blowing up the levee, the government should pay to relocate them away from an area that could be flooded again whenever the corps chooses.

Tarver said residents are tired of living in constant fear of water disrupting their otherwise peaceful lives.

But Mo. Rep. Steve Hodges, an East Prairie Democrat, doesn't think the government will go along with the idea.

Hodges said he counts the people of Pinhook among some of his closest friends. He played high school football with them in the 1960s and remembers a time when the team refused to eat at a restaurant that wouldn't let its black players inside.

Hodges said the government needs to do something, but he doesn't think moving all of the residents to a different location will be feasible.

"In my opinion, I don't think that will happen," he said. "I don't know where the money would come from. I think it would be a very nice gesture, but I think it would set some kind of really rare precedent. It is probably the government's responsibility to some extent. But that? I don't see it."

Hodges said he expects the residents will get some sort of reimbursement from either FEMA or the corps, and they'll be on their own to carry on their lives elsewhere.

"It's sad," he said. "That was such a great community. But this is a thing that's happened and it's probably going to be lost in time. It's a shame."


View Larger Map

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


barbara schmidt June 19, 2011 | 8:22 p.m.

I'm pretty sure you don't even want my comment. I'm personally getting a little sick of the "little guys" making all the sacrifices.

(Report Comment)
Harold Sutton June 20, 2011 | 8:16 a.m.

Hey! No disrespect to any people of any color of skin from my perspective. But we need to stop using the phrase "African-American". We are all Americans! Lets stop using this phrase. After all, we seldom use phrases such as ; "Chinese-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Eskimo-Americans, etc." If any person is a citizen of this country, then they are "Americans".

(Report Comment)
frank christian June 20, 2011 | 9:44 a.m.

Harold - "we need to stop using the phrase "African-American"." I agree with you completely. The ones to stop use of the term, are the ones who created it - Liberal, Black, Americans.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire June 20, 2011 | 12:57 p.m.

Send them to IRAQ!!!

(Report Comment)
cordell witherspoon June 21, 2011 | 1:46 a.m.

Why shouldn't the government bear the cost of relocating the residents of Pinhook,MO? It can't be cause of money, and that's for sure. This country sends people supplies medicine and MONEY to every country that has some sort of disaster, natural or not. Even sending money to countries that we are indebted to. Financial aid goes out to countries who provide safe haven to our known enemies. Yet none of them send help our way when we are affected. Stop the money from going outside of our borders, and I am quite sure there will be plenty of money available to aid our own citizens in their time of need.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith June 21, 2011 | 8:35 a.m.

Never mind race or economic status, why should the government bail out (relocate) people who live in a recognized flood plain?

There's a reason they're called flood plains - sooner or later, they flood!

These situations aren't confined to poor farmers living in rural areas. Some years ago developers in North Dakota built homes, some substantial in size and price, in the Souris River flood plain. People bought the homes and moved in. Then the Souris, normally an innocuous stream, underwent a major flood and the residents' homes were wiped out. (Souris" means "mouse" in French, and news headlines at that time said "the mouse that roared.")

There are several cities in the United States (examples: Pittsburgh, PA and Des Moines, IA) with substantial areas of vacant land within their limits, simply because there's an extensive flood plain.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz June 21, 2011 | 9:07 a.m.

Ellis, I wonder if the government has some culpability by building the levee in the first place? Would folks have built there without it? And is the town mentioned in the article in the actual flood plain, or did it get flooded only due to the massive volume of water that was released when the levee was destroyed? According to the map, it looks to be about 10 miles from the actual river, but one can't tell the actual geography from Google Maps.

(Report Comment)
Karen Mitchell June 22, 2011 | 11:38 a.m.

Here's a nice blog post that gives more of the history of Pinhook and the people who live/lived there. This really is, at its core, a sad situation about real people. The area has had smaller floods, but nothing before to this degree.
At the end of the blog post is a link to a song in tribute to Pinhook, which is very nice, too.

(Report Comment)

Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.