*CLARIFICATION: Crops were destroyed when the levee was breached, but most of the farmland was restored.
CHARLESTON — Three years after 130,000 acres of southeast Missouri was washed away when the government blasted three holes in a Mississippi River levee, part of the area has recovered from the flood, and part of it never will.
It was at the height of the 2011 flood, with water so high that nearby Cairo, Illinois, was threatened, that the Army Corps of Engineers decided to allow water into the spillway surrounded by Birds Point levee in Mississippi County. The strategy worked: Cairo was saved.
But several Missouri homes were destroyed, along with tens of thousands of acres of crops*.
Mississippi County today shows acres of golden wheat with stubby green corn stalks and soybean sprouts making their way through the earth.
Just three years ago, the scene was drastically different, as Mississippi River floodwaters ravaged the fields, leaving behind destroyed land, empty homes and rubble for roads.
Farmers have since recovered, successfully replanting their fields, but they haven't forgotten what they lost.
Pete Story is a third-generation farmer at Story Farms Inc., inside the spillway surrounded by Birds Point levee in Mississippi County, Missouri. On Tuesday, he clicked through photo after photo showing the devastation the levee's breach caused just more than three years ago.
Roofs of homes breaking through the surface of a lake. Drowning farm equipment. Men on boats surveying the damage. Stranded wildlife on a front porch.
"That is not the norm," he said, pointing to a photo of about a dozen deer and turkeys stranded on high ground, their island surrounded by muddy floodwaters.
Record rainfall in spring 2011 threatened the flood wall and the small town it protects — Cairo, Illinois, home to about 2,800 people.
Now-retired Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided May 2, 2011, to blast three holes in the levee, flooding about 130,000 acres of farmland in Mississippi and New Madrid counties.
The floodwaters took about a month to recede, leaving Story's office building and farming equipment damaged. The wheat and corn he had planted on his 2,300 acres were gone.
"And I was just one of the many," he said.
Many insurance companies don't want to take the risk of insuring property in a flood zone, such as the spillway. When insurance is found, prices are "astronomically high," said Story, who lives outside the spillway but operates his business within it.
Although the land was not destroyed, and wheat, corn and soybeans can be seen growing for acres, farmers had no idea what the status of their land would be after the levee was breached.
"I feel like we came out very good," Story said of his crops.
Like Story, most farmers fared well after the flood, but not all.
About 1,500 acres of farmland were destroyed by several feet of sand, ruts and erosion.
"This wasn't just about flooded farmland. It was about the two biggest crop-producing counties in the state," said Jason Smith, U.S. Rep. of the 8th District of Missouri, which covers Southeast Missouri.
Seven counties in the Bootheel account for about one-third of the agriculture produced in Missouri, Smith said, making the flooding not just an issue for Southeast Missouri, but for the entire state.
Then-newly elected Mississippi County Presiding Commissioner Carlin Bennett said commissioners presented the corps with alternative ways to activate the floodway that would cause less devastation in the area compared to blasting the levee.
One option was lowering an 11-mile stretch of the levee by one foot, allowing the river to top the levee naturally. That way, if the river needed relief, it would take it, Bennett said.
The commissioners are not the only advocates for the natural overtopping method of flood relief.
"The overtopping method in my opinion is the best approach when it comes to the flooding, right there, instead of spending the millions of dollars whenever you just decide to blow up a levee," Smith said. "We're in the 21st century; we can come up with a better method of flood control."
But there's a reason the corps has not shifted to that plan and would activate the levee again, should conditions call for it.
"Natural overtopping would not give us the necessary drop in the river levels that we would need if we got up to the point where we did have to operate the floodway," said Jim Pogue, spokesman for the corps' Memphis District. "It's not only how high (the water is) forecast to go, but how quickly it's forecast to get there. That can change the decision making process a lot."
Before 2011, the levee was last activated during the historic flooding of 1937. As the corps used data from the earlier flood to improve flood management plans, Pogue said the corps learned a lot of lessons from the 2011 Birds Point levee breach — enough that it "probably could fill a whole book."
"... If we ever do have to operate it again, I think we'll know a lot more, and we'll be in much better shape to operate it, and it will help us to make even more informed decisions than we did in 2011," he said.
Activating the levee is not the first choice, and not a decision made lightly, but is necessary to protect the integrity of the levee system and to better control the flood situation.
"It allowed us to do it in a controlled fashion, and if we hadn't operated the floodway, then we were looking at potentially an uncontrolled and catastrophic failure of one or more of the levees in that area," Pogue said.
Work on rebuilding the levee was completed about a year ago, Bennett said, and it stands at the full authorized height of 62.5 feet, meaning the two counties now are back to full protection.
The reconstruction cost approximately $53 million, and some cosmetic work sill needs to be completed along with some slight improvements over the original protection level, Pogue said.
County roads took a major hit when the wet weather was coupled with countless trips by triple-axle dump trucks hauling sand across the area for reconstruction.
What were once paved roads now are nearly gravel, Bennett said, including one of the oldest paved roads west of the Mississippi River.
"That's history that is now gone forever," he said.
Since Mississippi is one of the poorest counties in the state, finding money to repave and repair roads is hard to come by.
To add to the list of complications, thefts of batteries and farming equipment for scrap metal continue because the spillway is mostly abandoned and there are no streetlights, Bennett said. With only five deputy sheriffs in the county, it is difficult to patrol the entire area, he said.
Another piece of history washed away with the flood was the small black community of Pinhook that was established in the 1940s.
The community was one of the highest points in the spillway, Bennett said, adding that Pinhook used to be a safe haven during floods, but even that area was lost during the 2011 flooding.
"It's gone. It's done. It's gone forever," Bennett said.
Today, Pinhook streets are used for farm equipment storage. Grass, brush and trees are overgrown, taking root where homes used to stand. Red shutters surround broken windows, and a ceiling fan hangs, its blades drooping.
Some of the community's homes and its Baptist church were reduced to ashes by arson, with glasses and a small teddy bear tucked in the rubble.
Says an active blog about the community: "No federal, state, county or local financial assistance has been provided to the displaced residents of the town."
Whether people chose to build structures in the area for agricultural or residential purposes, Pogue said they were aware it was in a spillway.
"It's a risk that they've chosen to accept," he said. "For 70 or so years it was a good risk, but in 2011, it wasn't."
Previous residents are continuing their campaign to rebuild the town outside the spillway, according to the blog at rebuildpinhook.wordpress.com/.
Bennett and Smith say another method of flood control could be found — one that does not cause as much destruction.
"I've met with the Army corps probably over 10 times since I've been in Congress and will be continuing to put their feet to the fire and making sure our needs are properly addressed," Smith said.
The best way to encourage the corps to change the plan is through public pressure and publicity, Bennett said, because another flood of that magnitude is inevitable.
"It's not 'if,' it's 'when'," he said.