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DEAR READER: Of floods, perseverance and the Pinhook story

Friday, December 23, 2011 | 11:34 a.m. CST

Dear Reader,

One field trip, two significant stories.

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Each fall, MU assistant professor Bill Allen organizes a field trip – actually, it’s a fields trip because students tromp through plenty of them as they visit farms and forests across the state. It’s agricultural journalism where ag-j should start: with the people and their problems and promises.

Tony Schick and Benjamin Zack were paying attention. If they didn’t get an "A," they should have.

The 2011 edition of the tour took students and faculty through the Mississippi bottom land in the southeast part of the state, including the area that the Army Corps of Engineers purposely flooded last spring to prevent worse flooding in more populated areas.

It was controversial then, and it’s controversial now. For instance, recent national press reports detail the steep rise in crop insurance rates, in part because the levee hasn’t yet been replaced at the same height.

Schick and Zack were among the students who in September walked through rich fields of soybeans in that once flooded land. In fact, Schick reported, less than 1 percent of the 130,000 acres was permanently damaged when the corps blew the Birds Point levee.

What a difference from the doomsday predictions issued by the governor’s office in the spring. It would take "generations" to recover the land, officials said then.

Schick's story should have been picked up on the national wires because the lasting image from back in June was of a huge swath of Missouri farmland in ruins.

He found ruin, all right, but to people, not crops.

This week, Schick and Zack took us back to Birds Point and to the little village of Pinhook. It was a bump in the road before the flood, population 52 according to the sign on the road — which shows the age of the sign. Think more like low 30s.

Schick and Zack spent countless hours reporting the story of an African-American community long threatened by floods but bound by a sense of history and pride and, always, the land.

Land brought these families to Pinhook as sharecroppers. Blacks weren’t allowed to own the land less prone to flood, on Pinhook Ridge, before the '60s. Land they finally built homes on — the land that survived plenty of other floods — succumbed to the waters in May.

The people haven’t been back since.

The story and photos took up three full print pages on Thursday, in addition to a good chunk of the front page. Online readers saw all that plus an audio slideshow.

It’s a lot of effort and space for a little town 280 miles away from Columbia. Some of the reasons I said OK to the project:

  • We aren’t a river town, but we’re close enough to identify with the relentless march of a flood. Columbia can identify with those days and weeks of watching while hoping and praying.
  • The Birds Point levee breech was a dramatic and contentious moment last spring. Essentially, our state fought against the interests of Illinois and the federal government. More to the point, it brought forth a moral dilemma: Do you decide to blow the levee to protect more homes and people? Right or wrong, Pinhook is the story of the other side of that decision.
  • Through this story, you can see the roots of our history and the results — sometimes with ironically beneficial side effects — of segregation and discrimination.
  • It’s a great yarn. Flat out. The Pinhook story captures the human condition in so many ways. Ultimately, it’s a story of perseverance and hope.

I hope you'll agree once you've read it.

Tom


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