'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. Sally

    I would also like to comment that what is being flooded as a result of opening the levee is a floodway, not a flood plain. The floodways were built/designed to protect the flood plain which comprises much of that area and is protected by secondary levees. The farmers who are losing their land are farming in the floodway, the area between the two levees.

    May 5, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      And you mean to tell me they didnt know the risks of farming there?

      May 5, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Way to go

      You know you really should READ the article more thoroughly because theyfarmer and his family before has known that itheir farm was indeed in a flood way for centuries..

      May 5, 2011 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Vesstair

      "You know you really should READ the article more thoroughly because theyfarmer and his family before has known that itheir farm was indeed in a flood way for centuries.."

      Perhaps you should take your own advice. FTA:

      "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. "

      It's 2011. The land was designated a floodway when the levees were built in 1937. 76 years qualifies as "decades", not "centuries". Yes it sucks for the farmers, and yes if we can subsidize as much flippin' corn as we do we should probably give them partial reparations, but the Gov't isn't in the wrong here AND the farmers aren't as stupid as you're making them out to be.

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

      it seems that the people in cairo and other towns should have built on higher ground as well!

      May 5, 2011 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mrs Marvel

      The reason the ground is so fertile is thousands of years of floods bringing silt and deposits from other parts of the river. It's only in the 20th century that levies were installed to "control" the rivers. People are so arrogant to think that the river says in one place because we tell it to. Rivers go where they go. Look at the bed of the Mississippi on sat images – it has fluctuated west to east and back again over hundreds of years.

      May 5, 2011 at 6:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ed Sr

      This is very sad...............farmland lost.........a compounded ecological problem created.........wildlife lost...........the levee could have been extended further to contain a higher level of water and it would have been far cheaper than what it did to peoples farmland....their economy and the wildlife.............don't build it bigger...just blow it up and pay ten times more than it would have cost to extend the levee............the government makes no sense at all.......also with a population of about 2800 people......they could have been displaced and rebuilt elsewhere and the cost of all their land and their homes being rebuilt would not cost 1/20th of the present costs created by the government.....there were solutions that were viable.......they would not consider them...........

      May 5, 2011 at 6:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      ed sr.... I think you're making things up. This water will be gone in a a couple of months. 40$k worth of crops versus hiring hundreds of men to accomodate a problem that required quick, critical thinking... You sure you're not working for the government? PS. You are dumb.

      May 5, 2011 at 6:54 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Charlotte

    Due to the flood, I pray for all of the animals, big and small, that have lost their lives.

    May 5, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Polly Anna

    I grew up in an ag town and really feel for the folks who got flooded out. But inundation easements are there for a reason, and neither the easements nor the reasons for them are secret. You know it's there, and every year you don't get flooded is another year of good fortune. If the flood risk is unacceptable, then it's time to pull up stakes and move on. It isn't fair, but it is what it is. And for all you landowners out there, maybe it's time to pull out your ownership records and review the easements that affect YOUR property – easements are a way of life in this country, and if you don't know what easements cross your property, you can't even start to minimize the risks you are exposed to.

    May 5, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
  4. PJ from Nevada

    Hmmm....people's houses OR crops? hmmmm

    May 5, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Q Watcher

      Cairo is already flooded. As are many homes along the Mississippi with many more to come. What did this man-made flooding save again?

      May 5, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • avid reader

      There was a choice between people's possesions, not there lives, and I'll remind you that food doesn't orginate in grocery stores! This land is now trashed for years to come. Somewhere along the line people might want to pay attention to just how many farms we put out of business because at some point in time there just aren't going to be enough of us left to grow the food for the rest of you !

      May 5, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • guest

      literacy! that's what we need more of! the land won't be "trashed for years to come." This years crop was destroyed, and I'm not minimizing that loss, but as soon as the waters recede these farmers will be able to re-plant for THIS SEASON (mid-June was the deadline quoted in the article, I believe). Learn to READ, people!

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

      avid "reader." what a laugh

      May 5, 2011 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • avid reader

      It has nothing to do with not reading the article correctly, it has to do with seeing what fields that have been flooded look like after the water recedes! These fields will have unbelievable ruts and every bit of trash that has come from upstream ! You obviously have no point of reference to begin to comprehend what shape the land will be left in. This isn't your stupid little postage stamp-sized backyard we're talking about! I'm also sure if you talked directly to the gentleman interviewed he would tell you there are definitely be fields that are NOT going to be used this year and WILL show the damage from this flood for a long time to come, but oh wait, I just do this for a living, what could I possibly know!

      May 5, 2011 at 6:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      avid reader... I live on a corn and barley field in Texas... This is no big deal. Run your tiller and plow and the land will be better than ever. You're talking a days work for 10 acres and the machines do all the work... You ever seen the debris and ruts a plow leaves behind? These farmers are fine. They just want cash.

      May 5, 2011 at 6:58 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Ian

    People living on a floodplain were flooded? Forsooth! Structures should be protected by high levees, and the river should be otherwise allowed to do its thing. There are certain battles that Mother Nature will always win.

    May 5, 2011 at 4:43 pm | Report abuse |
  6. osama bin laden

    you can start growing fish then. Carp, snakehead, tilapia are always welcome.

    May 5, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Steve

      If they'd been fast enough last week, they could have gotten rice in the ground. Doesn't deep-water rice flourish in this sort of uncontrolled flooding?

      May 5, 2011 at 5:48 pm | Report abuse |
  7. norker

    live in a city saved by this? send a farmer a couple of bucks. it's the least you can do.

    May 5, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
  8. nita

    Yeah.....farmers don't make much money. That's wgy John Deer is doing so bad....these farmers buy 300,000 dollar harvesters like its nothing. Give me a break. You farm in a flood plain and it floods....stop whining. Go to work like most of us do every day and see if you can make it in the real world.

    May 5, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Philburt

      Apparently you have never been to work with a farmer. You go work for one week with a farmer before you open your mouth.

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

      If you are implying that farmers don't work hard (every day), then you're a lot dumber than you sound.

      May 5, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • j

      you are an idiot. If no one farmed, where do you think your food would come from?? and farmers hardley make any money.. do some research before you make ignorant comments like this.

      May 5, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chad

      I am not a farmer but I still have done enough research on where my food comes from to know that farmers wouldn't make much money without government assistance. Even with assistance most of them have the smallest of profit margins. Still these particular farmers know they took a risk with the land so they should know they have to take what they get. On top of that however any human being should still feel sadness for their plight.

      May 5, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Report abuse |
  9. B1974

    Floods, earthquakes, and all the above destroy ways of life. Be happy you are alive because all that stuff can be replaced.

    May 5, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
  10. jon

    they all have super cheap, ueber subsidized flood insurance they pays out big when it floods. but all their farming profits are private. so the risk is socialized and the reward is privatized. yeah – don't really feel that sorry for them.

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

      The flood insurance might not pay because this flooding was due to an act of man, not an act of God.

      May 5, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Mama Bear

    Here again, is the demonstration of the "geniuses" of the Army Corps of Engineers. Eliminate this group of goofballs and let the Department of Natural Resources and other agencies apply some solid plans based upon advanced technology – GIS, etc.

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

      Sort of confused as to how GIS is going to prevent a flood. It will tell you where you are and how to get somewhere else but the water won't disappear as a result.

      May 5, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Brian in KS

    I'm supposed to feel bad for farmers that won't lose a penny, thanks to subsidies and insurance? I lost everything in a flood in 1998 and I got exactly zip from my government. Farmers Insurance said my "flood insurance didn't cover that type of flooding". Huh?! The court sided with them. In the end, I lost over $400,000. Not one penny from the government, the Red Cross, nobody. Farmers Insurance is lucky I didn't fly a plane into their damn headquarters! I hope they all contract syphilis an die a miserable, long death.

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

      Wow. That's a bit crazy...

      May 5, 2011 at 7:05 pm | Report abuse |
  13. jackal&jester

    I wonder would more rivers help solve the issue of flooding in some areas?

    May 5, 2011 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Steve

      More rivers how? Do you mean divert some of the rivers that feed the Mississippi, and create a canal parallel to the Mississippi that carries some significant portion of its water? How much do you think that would cost? No, that's not enough. Your estimate is too low. And even if we wanted to pay for that, what would we do with all the traffic on the river that can't traverse it any more, because it's no longer deep enough?

      Nature can naturally manage flooding. We do an okay job managing normal conditions, but we just don't have enough experience to manage things on cycles longer than a few decades. Even here we knew this could happen and designated this land as a floodway expressly for this purpose, and still people are upset. About the only way I could see to avoid this would be to have the government buy this land (back in 1937) and then rent it out as farmland by contract. That way the owners could flood it whenever they needed and no one else would have grounds to complain.

      May 5, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
  14. kathleen

    Low land flooding is a natural and frequent event in history .
    People farm the areas between flooding cycles because the soil is rich .
    After water recedes , it will be farmed again .
    Some areas flood yearly , some cycles are farther apart but none of it suggests you do NOT farm there ,
    You just accept that from time to time , the field will not be usable for awhile .

    More seasoned farmers will build their residences on much higher ground tho .

    May 5, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Report abuse |
  15. nortel1

    If you don't flood it people will sue. If you do flood it people will sue. When this was built in 1937, I'm sure they never considered danged if you do and danged if you don't.

    May 5, 2011 at 6:26 pm | Report abuse |
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