'Heart-wrenching' feeling as flooding destroys homes, land and a way of life
Farmer Bob Byrne looks out on the flooding that damaged his land -- and $40,000 worth of wheat crop.
May 5th, 2011
10:46 AM ET

'Heart-wrenching' feeling as flooding destroys homes, land and a way of life

In Mississippi County, Missouri, where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers meet, water hasn't been this high since 1937.

It was that flood that prompted the Flood Control Act of 1937 and the construction of an interstate system of levees. Parts of those levees were designed to open up a flood way in extreme flooding situations. That opening would relieve pressure on the system during major flood events and actually lower flood stages.

With the Mississippi and Ohio rivers surpassing the record levels of 1937 this spring in Southeast Missouri, the Army Corps of Engineers has used explosives to do just that. The intentional opening of the levee is meant to save some river towns like Cairo, Illinois, but has inundated fertile farmland in the flood plain of Mississippi County, Missouri, with flood water.

Bob Byrne owns 550 acres of land inside the flood plain that has been in his family for more than 100 years.

"I was standing on top of the levee back here when it went and it's just kind of heart-wrenching, just a sinking feeling," Byrne said.

"We've seen the Ohio River rampage, water right up to the top of the levee. We've seen this one (Mississippi) on the rampage, but never the two together," he said.

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He plants wheat, corn and soy beans on the property. Byrne said his year is over unless the water gets off his land quickly.

"If we can get a soy bean crop planted by middle of June, first of July, we'll make crop," he said.

He already planted wheat and prepared the land for corn.

"So far, we've probably lost $40,000 on our wheat crop," Byrne said.

Norbert Rolwing, 93, farmed land in the flood plain during the record-setting flood in 1937.

"This is one of the things that happens once in a great while and you just have to take it on the chin," Rowling said.

"There's no winners here," Michael Reuter of the Nature Conservancy said.

"Our heart goes out to those people, but the challenge that we're forced to make here is how to balance the management of these rivers for people and nature, and there's communities up and down stream that had to be factored into this decision, as well," Reuter said.

Still, that doesn't make Byrne feel any better about his property.

"If the water doesn't get off and the land doesn't dry up, I'm going to have to do something else," he said.

A group of Missouri farmers have filed a class action lawsuit against the federal government for the decision to blow the levee. Though the Army Corps has flowage easements attached to the farmer's property, the class action suit reportedly is asking for compensation for taking their land.

"Way back in the Depression days when anybody would do anything to get a penny, that's when they got all of the easements on this kind of stuff," Byrne said.

Though he is not part of the legal action, Byrne said he will be studying the class action suit and will most likely join.

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Filed under: Missouri • Weather
soundoff (133 Responses)
  1. dan smith

    Its not the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, its the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, get your geography correct cnn.

    May 5, 2011 at 11:05 am | Report abuse |
    • Norm

      No, the Missouri comes in upriver at St. Louis. It's the Ohio that merges with the Miss at Cairo, right where the Bird's Point levee is. The Ohio is at record flood stage. Get your geography straight Dan.

      May 5, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • JimJ2

      Farmer Bob Byrne quoted in the article says it's the Ohio & Mississippi rivers.

      May 5, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Auntie Warhol

      Dan: study.

      May 5, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Che-3

      Looks like you missed out on First Grade Geography of own country's Geography to help you or enable you know your own surroundings. This is what Pres. Obama have been saying all along. Pls. take these First Grade Geography classes seriously. You will never kn ow when you may need them.

      May 5, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Liz

      Dan – eh, wrong! Try getting your geography straight. Mississippi river is the one closest to the farmlands.

      May 5, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • glj

      "Its not the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, its the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, get your geography correct cnn." Wrong – CNN is correct, Mississippi and Ohio converge in this area.

      May 5, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • OneFlewOverTheCuckoo'sNest

      It is clearly the Gulf of Mexico now. No offense to the people of the Southern coast.

      May 5, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      The Missouri river joins the Mississippi just north of St Louis. That's a very long way south of Cairo, Illinois. Take it from an Englishman with a map.

      May 5, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Nancy

    Two very important words say what people have been saying for years: flood plain. You build or farm on a flood plain, you're eventually gonna get, like, flooded? Isn't that why so many towns were relocated back in the '90s? You can't say that, just because it hasn't happened in 100 years, it's not going to happen. The levee system has made these rivers so much more dangerous when they do flood; that was demonstrated back in the '90s as well.

    My heart goes out to the farmers who will face devastating crop losses, but those two words remain: flood plain. Hopefully, there is some program that will assist them in recovering from this mess. Ultimately, though, you live in the flood plain, you get flooded.

    PS – I noticed that we didn't have an earthquake in the New Madrid area, did we? So much for the fears of that poor woman that CNN did an article on last week. People sometimes believe some very silly things, don't they?

    May 5, 2011 at 11:18 am | Report abuse |
    • Duh

      "Bob Byrne owns 550 acres of land inside the flood plain that has been in his family for more than 100 years."

      Nancy – You must have missed that part. 100 years ago it wasn't a flood plane and Bob isn't the one who decided to build there.

      May 5, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Duh2

      Not to mention most farmers in that area most likely inherited there land, but please more comments from the ignorant masses.

      May 5, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • John in NY

      What's always overlooked in these stories is that the flood plains are farmed because the repeated flooding has made the soil extremely rich and furtile, so basically the story is that land that is farmed due to repeated previous floods is flooded again.

      Oh and let's not forget that the floods have made this farmland yields higher then less furtile, and flooded, areas and so in non-flood years the farmer makes extra money off each acre while when it floods the government gives the farms "disaster aid" to compensate them for their "loss" so it's a win-win for the farmers.

      May 5, 2011 at 12:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Captain Obviouse

      To Duh–Your right, floods didnt exist befor then, and those levys, totally natural. Think befor you speak.

      May 5, 2011 at 12:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Auntie Warhol

      Duh: Pretty sure the area flanking the Mississippi River has been a flood plain for many thousands of years. Study.

      May 5, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Che-3

      Duh; get this through your bone head.
      The Rivers and its tributaries EXISTED, and I repeat EXISTED centuries ago measured in BC's; before this country was stolen from Native Americans. What part of these FACTS or history don't you understand? Do you even read your Bible? Your cowboy heroes aka Reagan or GWB didn't curve these rivers? It's foolish for most so-called Americans to even think or construe the thought that they exited before any other thing else on this earth. You're trying tooooo hard to be uneducated or lack thereof and stupid.

      May 5, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Liz

      As far as earthquakes go, here is a link to the last three reported earthquakes that have happened after the levee breaks...http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/recenteqsus/Maps/US2/35.37.-91.-89_eqs.php

      May 5, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Seigell

      The majority of the Mississippi Valley is and has been a Flood Plain since at least the middle of the last Ice Age. Nothing changes a Flood Plain in a short span like 100 yrs (except maybe a new volcano building up the ground by 100's of feet). The very soil that the regions farmers till each season was deposited and built up by 1000s of floods over 10,000s of years. The floods also recharge the water tables from which the farmers draw their irrigation.
      That we see a reminder of the processes that built the Mississippi Valley into the rich farmland that it is, is both awesome and sobering. That we interview a farmer who is immediately impacted is heart-wrenching (but also divisive – as he will benefit in the long term as well as likely see compensation in the short term).

      May 5, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Floria sigmundi

    That's horrid I hope the area can recover they need to build homes on stilts


    May 5, 2011 at 11:29 am | Report abuse |
  4. cecelia burroughs

    I think its so sad that the daughter seen some of the really awful things that were done to her dad.....also the seven year old.what did he ever do ?

    May 5, 2011 at 11:40 am | Report abuse |
    • Tired of stupid people

      You should at least read the article before you make irrelevant comments.

      May 5, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • SgtSerge

      You are on the wrong page....... how did you miss that......

      May 5, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jessica

      "what did (s)he ever do ?" She was born to a super terrorist. It's his fault in thinking that he would never be caught not ours. Also look at the story before you post!

      May 5, 2011 at 12:55 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Mike

    Maybe plant rice? Doesn't it require water?

    May 5, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Che-3

      You may think as so-called Americans they should know. Rice will sell anywhere on this planet and could last for years in silos.

      May 5, 2011 at 1:14 pm | Report abuse |
  6. SgtSerge

    Things happen to everyone..... if you look at it in 100 year terms, almost every industry has had some sort of massive period growning pains. People will take lessons from this and improve for next time. This guy should be happy this land was given to him and he has obviously made lots of money off of it. What has he not put away for a rainy day? He is 93 and losing 40k means he has to do something else? Sad really. End point is, problems happen, you deal with it and move forward. Crying over spilt milk does not help, you still own the land.

    May 5, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sgard

      the 93 year old guy was taking it on the chin. It was the other guy that was losing 40k and wanting to sue.

      May 5, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gayle

      Telling a a 93 year-old man that he still owns the land is not very compassionate. For your information, something you should already know – small farmers in this country seldom make enough money to put any away for a "rainy day". Almost every year something happens to the crops – too much rain, too little rain, insect invasion, etc. That is one reason why we have so few small family farms nowadays. I generally don't like their political leanings, but these small-time farmers are extremely hard-working and they have just been thrown to the wolves with no support offered. How would YOU feel if this were done to you?????

      May 5, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • SgtSerge

      Here are some stats I found...... Just saying.....
      On average, farm household income has been roughly comparable to the median for all U.S.
      households since the 1970s. In 2004, the most recent year for which comparable data exist, the
      average farm household had an annua l net income of $81,480, while the average U.S. household
      netted $60,528.

      May 5, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
  7. loverbib

    should have listened to the hipies about MOTHER EARTH and stop burning fossil fuels (40yrs ago)

    May 5, 2011 at 12:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • SgtSerge

      If burning fuels caused this, why did it happen before....... I believe in global warming (may or may not be because of us) but your point is really dumb. If makes global warming seem more like fear mongering not reality. Please stick to facts not stupid conclusions.....

      May 5, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Jessica

    The land will not be "ruined" at all. The flooding brings nutrients and minerals to the land and enhances it. Yes he will lose the planted crop but he may just make that 40k back when he needs to use less fertilizer over the next few years.

    Live on a flood plain you need to expect this to happen from time to time.

    May 5, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Che-3

      Thank you!
      These white farmers should listen to you than looking for a handout and easy Federal Welfare from the Federal Gov't. and Pres. Obama. These are they same folks who appear on TV screaming on top of their lungs dissing the Fed. Gov't and Pres. Obama. They forget these are situations when you need the Gov't of your country to step in and help. Its a different story to these folks when the shoe is on the other foot or to they hate by birth. Shame on them!

      May 5, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • glj

      Jessica, normally I would say yes your are correct. A flood wil make the ground more fertile. Unfortunately, in this case there was a wall of water that went over the land and stripped the top soil off. According to Dr. Aide, chairman of the Department of Agriculture at Southeast Missouri State University:

      "Physical problems will exist for a series of years while new sediment starts to form new soil structure,"
      "Not to the point you can't farm it, but it will take a yield toll on anything you put in there for the next several years."
      "The agricultural land expected to be affected in Mississippi County is valued at more than $300 million, according to the Missouri Department of Agriculture. It is some of the most productive soil in the state with Mississippi County farmers harvesting 6.2 million bushels of soybeans and 9.4 million bushels of corn in 2010. "


      May 5, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Thomas, Baton Rouge, LA

      Not to mention all the fun fertilizers and pesticides it has now:)

      May 5, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • GMCMAN

      Gotta agree with glj and the SMSU chairman on this one. I'd only add that there will be a HUGE amount of erosion incurred with the immense amount of water and the fields will have to be mechanically leveled once again. We keep adding more and more water to these river systems that were never designed to handle this much water. Ocean levels are rising (is it the ice caps melting or are we just dumping more water in the ocean than ever before?) Just something to think about.

      May 5, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • guest

      "are we just dumping more water in the ocean than ever before?"

      oh my god you people are so freaking dumb

      May 5, 2011 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Che-3

    Looking for a handout from US Gov't. and Pres. Obama? Aren't these so-called Americans claims they don't need any HELP from the US Gov't. or Pres. Obama? This is frivolous lawsuit.

    May 5, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • budha

      So black farmers wouldn't do this? Please before you try to throw "White farmers" under bus get your facts straight.

      May 5, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
  10. alyssa

    Duh – I am a civil engineer andd urban planner and trust me when I say that the area flooded has always been a flood plain. That it what the lands adjacent to a river is. Farmers have built in the flood plain for millenia precisely because the land floods and typically makes the land more fertile. The problem with people for the last couple of centuries is that they think they are excempt from nature once they decide to build some place or they think measures taken by man to prevent natural disasters are foolproof. The thing is nothing is follproof when it comes to nature and when you try to prevent nature disasters, especially flooding, you only really only stop the minor disasters. Frequently you make the larger ones worse. And you owe a Nancy an apology. Do your research next time before spouting off about someone else's comment.

    May 5, 2011 at 1:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Che-3

      Save your breath you can't educate an empty shell cavity, Duh.
      Duh is another IMBECILE American. We see them everyday screaming on top of their lungs on TV's in their numerous bogus arguments that doesn't make sense even to poooodle with a lip stick. You feel me?

      May 5, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • GMCMAN

      Civil engineer and Urban planner huh? So have you ever farmed? Tell me what happens to land that is completely covered with water for an extended period of time. It sours. And what if that land is covered in FEET of sand. You can't plant crops in sand. These lands have more than likely been mechanically leveled for drainage/irrigation. After you run a river over it, that leveling will have to be redone. Not to mention all the change in soil pH. Soil tests will have to be done and agricultural lime or fertilizer applied if needed (Neither is cheap). Also, don't forget where your food comes from. There is no "easy button" for this problem. Flooding will happen from time to time. If these people feel the need to file a lawsuit to keep their way of life and keep food on the table. So be it. By the way, I have a degree in Agriculture.

      May 5, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Q Watcher

      Planner? They seem to do great at running things into the ground. So perhaps you could enlighten everyone on things that matter, such as what this does to food availability, prices, safety .... These are things that are important today and this has grave impact. I would also like to hear more about the safety of blasting and putting tons of water weight on a major fault line that even the gvt has concerns about causing catastrophic problems for the country. Are you aware of the NLE activities currently underway in that area right now? Or HAARP activity in that area prior to the historical weather? These things should be in your area of expertise and I am always exploring insight into these issues that truly affect our well-being.

      May 5, 2011 at 4:52 pm | Report abuse |
  11. justaguy

    Sounds like the guy is going to have a tough year this year but next year, when the land is dry again and the flooding probably not so serious, he should be back in business. If he can survive this year, that is. Sounds pretty typical for farming. If its not one reason for crop failure its another. And if you are able to harvest your crop then you have to deal with a fickle, tough to predict market. Tough business to be in.

    May 5, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Smokepole

    The land may very well be ruined. Levees have changed the flow pattern of the water, and the farmer may find his soil buired under 3 feet of sand, or scoured away completely. Only the calm back waters on the fringe of a flood benefit from silt settling out to enhance the fertility of the soil.

    May 5, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Report abuse |
  13. mcmurdo

    Stupid Americans build in a flood plain and complain when it floods then want compensation for their stupidity. Same goes for idiots who build on the San Andreas fault, at the base of an active volcano or on a cliff overlooking the ocean.

    May 5, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Liz

      Stupid Americans who continue to think they know it all when they haven't a clue! How many times must it be told that MOST of these farmers did not purchase the land??? This land was inherited through generations of family. The land is "prime" farmland. It has been said that this is some of the BEST and most fertile land in the country. There is a reason they continue to farm the land. They didn't expect this to happen to them!

      May 5, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Amanda


      They didn't expect to be flooded while farming in a flood plain? I feel bad for them, I do, but it's not like this isn't a potential situation they shouldn't have been aware of.

      Really, it boils down to risks and opportunities: the opportunity to farm such rich land (which is so rich because of floods in years past) overshadowed the risk of it flooding. That doesn't mean the risk wasn't there.

      May 5, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
  14. oldguy

    @John in NY

    The nutrients deposited over the eons by flooding have long been depleted. While the composition of the soil is excellent for farming, without modern soil management techniques (liming, fertilizing, no till planting... )the yields would be much, much lower. Most of the gains garnered by soil management over the generations will be lost to the flooding, and the farmers will have to start developing it again.

    We had a devastating flood caused by record breaking weather and a failed levee system in New Orleans. It attracted billions of dollars from the Feds. The COE blows a levee resulting in a devastating flood in SE MO. It's reasonable to expect some level of financial compensation for the landowners. If the ultimate solution is to forcible relocate the farmers off the land, we should do the same for the 9th Ward.

    May 5, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
  15. ilfarmgirl

    this kind of action will only raise your grocery bill. Before you compalin about the American farmer think about where your meals come from and don't talk with your mouth full.

    May 5, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Q Watcher

      Yes. With many food prices already rising astronomically in the past year, gas prices threatening to make them rise even higher, I'm surprised that people haven't put 1 and 1 together. This area provides a large portion of our food. What will this do to prices, if we can get it at all? Not to mention the nuke fallout we continue to get that has poisoned it and the soil. Someone's plan is coming together and it doesn't look good for us. None of us.

      May 5, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Report abuse |
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