2019. Recently I received a phone call from “Anonymous.” (She prefers to remain that way because her story is but one of many.) She said, “The flood waters are here and it is deja vu all over again! Nothing has changed!” This time when their family received flood warnings they worked until two a.m. in the morning to get their equipment and grain to a safe area. They were weary, and decided to take what they could, returning in the morning for more. There was no return, as flood waters enveloped the farm once again. In re-reading the 2011 flood story, not much has changed.
The following column appeared October 27, 2011, issue of the Atchison County Mail entitled “A River of Heartache.”
2011. Throughout the heartland of our United States of America, excuses and explanations have been abundant for the summer of 2011 as flood waters from the Missouri River turned prime farm land into an oceanic scene. It shimmered in the sunlight and at sunset mirrored the colors of a day at rest. A panorama of the South Pacific (less palm trees) plunked into mid-America’s corn and soybean fields.
That panorama is accurately described as devastating, catastrophic, and calamitous. The land and communities were impacted by a Master Manual compiled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – a manual few even knew existed and apparently had little agricultural representation at the time of creation. Where were the farm organizations (who reputedly speak for the farmers) when the manual was under review?
There are so many questions of this nature. For farmers there is also the fear of “land grabbing” for more flood plain, habitat and such. The disaster supposedly began due to a big snow pack, unusually heavy rains . . . or as aptly characterized, “devastation by design.”
A few published facts are: 234 square miles under water, levees breached and broken with, for instance, one levee having 16 breaks, $110 million in economic loss, all of which is an insufficient figure when road damage, crop and business loss are included. However, facts and dollar figures don’t begin to touch the utter hurt and heartache the losses have rendered.
We’ve all heard the comment, “If you live along the river you can expect to be flooded.” Perhaps so, but this flood was different. It reached areas that have never flooded before with a swift current and sustained high water levels for months.
On a recent visit to a Missouri Century Farm my host shared photos of her home and farm before the flood. Nothing palatial, but homey, neat, well cared for, and obviously loved. We strolled about the farm yard and with each step our shoe soles crunched against the crust formed on soil that had been for months under water.
The family settled in northwest Missouri near the Missouri River in 1897 and the home had never been flooded until 2011. This third generation landowner, whose fourth generation son tills the soil, had snapped a photo of the fifth generation carrying the sixth generation across the porch and into the old farm house built by a grandfather in 1905.
On June 14, 2011, my host moved in haste from her life-time home as water crept nearer, still thinking the house and farm yard would be okay, because flood waters had never inundated their family home.
“This land has been good to us,” she said. “We’ve dealt with floods before . . . it’s near the river, however, with the changes in the river management we’ve harvested only one crop in four years, and that’s never happened before.”
While sitting in a swing suspended from a branch of one of the pecan trees that are at least 100 years old and planted by the grandfather, we looked at before-the-flood pictures of the farm. A combine went down the road with a pickup and combine head following. “That’s my neighbors bringing home their equipment. We brought our equipment home over the weekend. Friends let us park everything at their place. As the news continued to be worse and the fear of levees breaking, the children and their families came and we divided things. They each took what they wanted,” and looking up at the trees, she added, “I don’t know if they’ll survive or not.”
(We went inside the house.) “Grandfather was a wood worker and he built the old house. It was one of the early homes to have steam heat and carbide lighting. We’ve tried to keep it up and cherish his wonderful woodworking ability. See,” she said pointing, “he used cherry wood here, oak and walnut over there – the wood he gathered from this land. He built the shop and his equipment is still there. We couldn’t get it all moved, but the shed is built of cement and the shed floor is off the ground . . . we didn’t expect the water to get so high and we tried to put things higher. The house smells of bleach, but how else would we get rid of the mold? Do you think the floors will buckle after being under water and sludge all this time? The porch is buckling. And look at this on the doors. Do you suppose that will be stained forever?”
(Now we’re in her car and she’s directing attention to the levee breaks. The road grader has cleared the road and soil is rolled to the side. Many places the surface is gouged out and the side ditches full. It’s been aptly described as a “moonscape” and a desert. A tire hangs uselessly from a tree branch.)
“We and neighboring landowners pooled costs and built that levee in the hope the river would back up to it as it might have in other flood times, but unlike other floods, this flood had a hard current. Instead, levees were breached and the water came through that way.”
(At yet another levee.) “When they hurriedly put up this levee, again with the thought the water would back up to it, we thought it would save not only the fields but the church and those houses. The parishioners removed the stained glass windows and furnishings out of the church. You can see where the water level left water marks at least four feet high. Instead,” she continued, “it broke the levee and look at this hole right in the middle of the field. (It was a gigantic pit.) It’s very deep. What does one do with that? We emptied our grain bins and they were filled with several feet of water and (pointing to a bin in the distance and lodged amongst dead trees) how that bin rolled over there we’re not sure. Must have had a big wind or the water just carried it away. Who knows? This was ‘no man’s land’ for months.”
“The corn was up to my waist (referring to the before-the-flood pictures of their neat farmstead that now looks battered and unkempt) and as you can see, there is nothing left. Only those little tufts tell where the rows were.”
I ask, “Do you think you’ll move back?”
“I don’t know. It’s been such a wonderful home. We worked very hard over the years to keep it nice and enjoyable and there are special memories and I always planned special things to do with my grandchildren and now great-grandchildren. It’s their place, too. I don’t think my neighbors are returning and do I want to be out here alone? Also, the levees are not repaired and come spring there is the spring pulse on the river that the Army Corps of Engineers are also in charge of, and we see how they operate! I can’t help but feel they’re trying to run us out. How safe is it to return as long as those who want recreation and fabulous boating experiences up-river, and with the environmentalists in control – they seem to put a fish or a bird before people, property and growing food, how safe is it to return? I’ll spend the winter in the apartment I moved to. It’s . . . well, it’s not home! I’ll consider whether to return come spring. I do miss my home and it breaks my heart to see our farm and the desolation surrounding us.”
1993, an article in the News-Press with the heading “Dams were saviors during flood,” went on to example how much worse the summer flood would have been had not the dams upstream been in place.
In the October 18th [2011] edition of the News-Press the following was reported: “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Monday declared the Missouri River flood officially over…” The article also said, “Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer fought against a developing notion that flood control for states farther down the river should dominate how reservoirs are managed upstream. He told governors of the downstream states that such a plan would lead to empty reservoirs, which are relied upon for recreation, wildlife and agriculture in Montana when a drought hits.”
2019. Governor Schweitzer is no longer governor of Montana. This flood highlights the fact that in the interim years a revised master plan for the river did not happen. The devastation this time is even more severe, and the levees unrepaired due to water covering everything. The recent flood event was discussed and televised at a meeting in Glenwood, Iowa. The Army Corps of Engineers, as well as other dignitaries and elected officials, spoke before a large crowd of people. According to the Corp Officer, the 2019 flood was not preventable and not the fault of planning on the part of the Corps of Engineers. When the camera scanned the faces of the audience, many with water up to the eaves of their homes, didn’t appear convinced of the reasons (or excuses?) given.
Waiting for the waters to recede these many days later, the damage estimate is in billions of dollars. There is a lament of inadequate monies to make necessary changes or to maintain river infrastructures (for instance, the dam that broke on the Niobrara River in Nebraska was 92 years old). Time will tell if our elected legislators, farm service organizations, farmers and businesses affected by flooding, will pursue management and purpose changes for the Missouri River, tributary rivers and streams. The word seems to be that it is the duty of our Congress to revamp use and purpose of the river, and if one follows the news, there are probably those in Congress who would ask, “Huh. What river?”
The option of waiting on Congress, the creation of a new master plan, as well as the option of not doing anything proactive, is grim, and once again affects, not only those who dwell in proximity of the river, but in some fashion or another, every citizen to a River of Heartbreak.