Century Farm Washed Out by Historic Flooding

Missouri Flooding FTF 06/08/19
Flood waters could stay high all summer, a tough reality for farmers dealing with thousands of acres of farmland already under water. ( Farm Journal )

Farmers along major rivers are coping with the raw emotions of a natural disaster.

“I had probably 80% of my corn planted,” said Jim Wheeler, a farmer in Carroll County, Mo. who now has 90% of his crop under water. “We’re not figuring we're going to have a crop this year.”

The emotions are fresh as the Missouri River recently rose to record levels. The waters rose so high, so fast, it was too much for area residents and levees to hold back.

“In March, we fought the good fight,” said Wheeler. “We threw probably close to 100,000 sandbags at that time, and we felt really good because we saved it that time. We were optimistic that maybe we’d get a little bit relief, but of course we haven't, and this time around was different because we were just basically overwhelmed.”

The area was inundated as three levees in an 18-mile stretch broke.

“We actually have three breaches right now that are feeding this area here,” Wheeler said as he drove his boat over a water covered corn field just south of Norborne, Miss.

An aerial view tells the story the best, as thousands of acres of fertile farmland are now suffocated by the raging river.

 “That’s where it broke originally to fill that in to get the secondary levee, which saved it for a couple days,” said Todd Creason who flew the U.S. Farm Report crew over the flooded area. “That was solid trees on the levee, that are now washed out in this field, and they’ll have to pick all that up.”

Creason has been flying over and surveying the damage as the work being done to save the levees went on for months.

“This has to be a couple miles of sandbags just right here,” said Creason. “Every one of those sandbags were filled, hauled out there and placed individually.”

Thousands of sandbags were placed along a major levee in March, which held back the river for months.

“If the river would have stayed below 32 feet, it would have worked,” said Creason.

The rising river levels this year are drawing scrutiny from landowners, as the flooding continues to get worse.

“When we look at this where we're sitting today, we've got well over 100 levees that have breached; we have even more that are overtopping as we speak, and it doesn't take a lot overtopping before those levees breach,” said Tom Waters, Chairman of the Missouri Levee District.  

Waters is in constant communication with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). While he said he respects the work being done by local officials, he’s questioning if flood control is a priority for USACE. When asked if he thinks the massive flooding could have been prevented, Waters said the answer is mixed.

“It's hard to say, but I think things could have possibly been done differently,” said Waters. “It's hard to say, is it mismanagement or is it intentional?  Is it absolutely just because of all the rain? Could there have been things done earlier? A lot of questions there. Maybe we'll be able to look back and see and determine those things, but we all know that this river system and the Missouri River system has not been managed for flood control for 20 plus years. And that needs to change; long-term that has to change.”

He says the change is needed for the future, but this year, flooding could last all summer.

“We know because there's so much water in the reservoir and reservoirs are so full, they (USACE) has to release water,” said Waters. “Anytime the Corps gets a little break in the flows from lack of rain, they're going to backfill that from releases from the reservoir. The river is just going to stay high for a very long time.”

Wheeler says he remembers 1993 vividly, a year where he faced flooding for several months.

“There are a lot of similarities,” said Wheeler. “We're still concerned about what's happening upstream. It seems like they continue to increase releases from the reservoirs. As long as we're limiting to that, it's probably not going to get any worse, but now we're totally subject to the weather.”

He said even when the waters recede, it will take months to rebuild the broken levees, leaving the area subject to more flooding.

“It's been an emotional roller coaster this time,” he said. “You go through fear that …. when the water comes back. And, of course, there's a huge letdown when you when you lose the levy is it's pretty depressing.”

Wheeler said as a farmer you almost become numb to the financial and emotional pain for a few days.

“Once you get your batteries charged up again, then you say,’ well, we're in survival mode,’” he said. “So, we just keep going, go on persevere and do what we have to do to get back in business, you know? And that's about all you can do.”

It’s the younger producers he’s worried about the most in the area. The risks of farming in the river bottoms are always high, but he said it’s land from which he can’t just walk away

“My farm is a ‘Century Farm’ this year,” said Wheeler. “This year is supposed to be kind of a celebratory year for me; it will be one we remember.”

A year he never forgets, not only due to the heartache, but the triumph he feels after witnessing a community rally together in a remarkable way.

“We had probably the best volunteer army that you could ask for,” he said. “We just had some tremendous help. I'm just so proud to be a part of this community because they really put their heart and souls into it.”

A community that continues to prove that even while the waters robbed farmland, it can’t take away the pride that’s been planted both in and outside the city limits for generations.