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Apr 13, 2019

Flood thy neighbor

Co-produced with PRX Logo

This episode originally was broadcast Sept. 1, 2018.

Some people who live along the Mississippi River are willing to do anything to keep their homes and farms safe from flooding – even if it means inundating their own neighbors. This week, we team up with ProPublica to investigate how rising waters have set off a race to build the highest levee. We meet two farmers, one who’s willing to break the rules to protect his farm and the other who thinks that makes her farm more vulnerable. We explore the science behind levees and learn why policymakers sometimes ignore it.

We then tell the story of the tiny town of Pinhook, Missouri. In 2011, the Army Corps of Engineers blew up a levee to save local farms. But in doing so, it intentionally flooded a small African American town.

We end with a visit to Hannibal, Missouri, a town which for decades flooded on a regular basis. The town is now doing what scientists consider best practice: demolishing low-lying neighborhoods so the river has a place to go during floods.

Read: There was a plan to save this city from flooding. But when the rains came, so did hesitance.

Flood thy neighbor: Who stays dry and who decides?

Watch: Videos of the flood model described in the show

Explore: See how the Army Corps has shown that levees on the Illinois side of the river are making floods worse for those around them

Credits

 

Today's show was produced in collaboration with ProPublica.

Produced by Patrick Michels and Katharine Mieszkowski. Edited by Taki Telonidis.

Thanks to Lisa Song, Al Shaw, Alexandra Zayas, Katie Campbell and Ranjani Chakraborty at ProPublica.

Thanks also to the State Historical Society of Missouri and to Todd Lawrence and Elaine Lawless.

Thanks to Lori Stern and Phoebe Petrovic for research assistance.

Our production manager is Najib Aminy. Original score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, who had help from Kaitlin Benz and Katherine Rae Mondo.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: Let's be real, everybody loves tote bags, everybody, and Reveal has a brand spanking new one. It's beautiful and much bigger than our last one. All this month, we're entering people into the running to get one of these totes for me. All you have to do is sign up for our newsletter. Just text the word newsletter to 63735, and follow the prompts. You can text stop at any time, and standard rates apply.

 

Al Letson: At the end of April, we'll get in touch and send out totes to the winners. Again, to get in the running text newsletter to 63735. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Speaker 1: Thousands of homes are damaged and vast worth of farmland under water.

 

Al Letson: This spring has been a disaster for the Midwest.

 

Speaker 2: Every piece of furniture in the cabin's under water. So that's the worst it's ever been since we've been out here.

 

Al Letson: People have been killed, property damaged is in the billions of dollars. And that's just in Nebraska and Iowa.

 

Speaker 3: Every single levee was overtopped, water coming in from every direction.

 

Al Letson: Federal officials predict that 25 states may flood this rain, putting 200 million people at risk. That's why we're re-airing the show we first brought you last year that we produced with the nonprofit newsroom, ProPublica. It's about how farmers along the Mississippi River try to protect themselves from flooding.

 

Patrick Michels: Should I be nervous here at the edge?

 

Al Letson: That's Reveal reported Patrick Michels. He's standing on the edge of a giant sandpit in the Mississippi River Valley.

 

Dan Lundberg: I wouldn't get within three foot of it.

 

Al Letson: Patrick's guide with the easy laugh is Dan Lundberg, a local farmer. The trench in front of them is about 30 feet deep, and it's about to get deeper. They're surrounded by some of the most valuable farmland in Illinois, enormous fields of corn and soy beans, but the land wouldn't be worth nearly as much without all the sand.

 

Dan Lundberg: This is a sand site. We had about three or four different sand sites.

 

Al Letson: Waiting next to the trench is a huge yellow machine called a truck hoe. It has a single long arm with a scoop on the end. Here comes a dump truck.

 

Katharine M.: You think we're going to see some action here?

 

Al Letson: That's Reveal's Katharine Mieszkowski.

 

Dan Lundberg: Yeah, he's going to fill it.

 

Katharine M.: All right.

 

Al Letson: All that sand is headed to a wall that stretches more than 50 miles along the river.

 

Dan Lundberg: Now, you take it down there and back up the side of the levee and dump it. Then we've got dozers over there too that's leveling it out.

 

Al Letson: The levee they're working on is one of the longest in the country. The sand will make it stronger, better able to resist the mighty Mississippi. Without that wall, this land would be a swamp.

 

Katharine M.: You wouldn't really associate this with farming, but it's related.

 

Dan Lundberg: It's related 'cause it keeps the water out.

 

Al Letson: Keeping the water out, that's what we're talking about today. Who gets flooded, and who gets protected. Reveal's Patrick Michels and Katharine Mieszkowski went to the Mississippi to bring us this story.

 

Patrick Michels: The farmland here is carved out of the Mississippi floodplain, that's the low laying land beside the river. When we visited Dan this spring, the Mississippi was running high, but the levee was easily holding it back. 26 years ago was the last time the river touched this land.

 

Dan Lundberg: There used to be about four acres of timber in there. I mean big trees, there was cottonwoods and everything. It killed every tree in that.

 

Patrick Michels: It really remade this landscape too.

 

Dan Lundberg: That's it. Anybody who came down here before '93, they wouldn't recognize it now.

 

Tom Brokaw: The great floods of 1993 are beginning to look like a war zone.

 

Patrick Michels: That's Tom Brokaw reporting for NBC Nightly News.

 

Tom Brokaw: President Clinton tours the devastated areas.

 

Patrick Michels: Dan shows us a scrapbook from that time.

 

Dan Lundberg: All the newspaper clippings out of the papers.

 

Patrick Michels: The first page of your scrapbook, what does it say at the top?

 

Dan Lundberg: It was only the beginning.

 

Patrick Michels: Little did we know.

 

Katharine M.: That year, the flooding in the Midwest started in the spring and lasted clear into the fall. The whole region was locked in an epic flood fight and the water was winning.

 

Tom Brokaw: Along the Mississippi, the high waters have been putting a very heavy strain on levees day after day, week after week. Today, some of them broke under the heavy pressure.

 

Katharine M.: Local residents defended the levees that protected their homes and land, Dan was a part of it. His farm is in the Sny Levee District, the agency responsible for maintaining the levees in several communities. It's where the fight went on for weeks with the water cresting and receding. Throughout the Midwest, hundreds of levees were failing. Finally, the Sny's number was up.

 

Tom Brokaw: The biggest break was near Quincy, Illinois where the Sny Levee opened up, forcing rapid evacuations in two communities. When the break occurred, four workers trying to reinforce it had to climb trees to avoid being swept away.

 

Dan Lundberg: That's where it broke in '93.

 

Patrick Michels: Dan's showing us where the levee failed. When Dan heard the bad news, he knew exactly what it meant for him, and his three brothers, and parents who all lived in the area.

 

Dan Lundberg: It's just like a lump in your throat, 'cause you know what's going to happen.

 

Katharine M.: How long does it take?

 

Dan Lundberg: It took about four days for this bottomless, 44000 acres to fill up.

 

Patrick Michels: The floodplain where Dan lived and farmed was like this bowl. The levees that were still holding were like the rim, and the flood waters swamped everything inside. Where there had been fields, now there were waves.

 

Dan Lundberg: When you put all that water out here, I'll tell you, it's just like a big ocean.

 

Patrick Michels: Just like parts of the ocean, it was full of trash. The water had washed out people's homes and farms, and whatever wasn't tied down floated away.

 

Dan Lundberg: You couldn't believe all the stuff that floated in there. There was firewood, there was sewing machines, washers and dryers. There was gas tanks, there was cans and bottles. You name it, it was there.

 

Patrick Michels: Dan's house flooded, and so did his parents' and three brothers' places. He shows us some photos. All these photos of the wreckage of your house here, but there's a photo of the two of you. The caption underneath it that says, "We can still find happiness."

 

Dan Lundberg: Like she lied. No, I'll tell you, my wife Natalie, we've had a good marriage.

 

Katharine M.: Dan's marriage survived the deluge, as did his family. Recovery was a long slog back.

 

Dan Lundberg: To survive financially, it probably took me ten years just to get back to where I was at.

 

Katharine M.: The flood was a blow to the whole region. It caused about $15 billion of damage across the Midwest, 50 people lost their lives. As for Dan, the experience literally whittled him down.

 

Patrick Michels: You must have been so exhausted.

 

Dan Lundberg: I grant you, I'm overweight now, but I went back to my army weight. Right now I'm right at 300, I went back to 214.

 

Katharine M.: Just from moving sand bags, you're just working so hard?

 

Dan Lundberg: And stress, a lot of it was stress. Back then, I was 45 years old, I could handle it. I couldn't do that today, there's no way. I know my dad after he said, "I worked all my life for this." He says, "It's all nothing now."

 

Katharine M.: This land hasn't flooded since then and Dan wants to keep it that way. He's a commissioner of the Sny Levee Levee District. He'll do almost anything to keep it from being breached.

 

Patrick Michels: But some people feel he's going too far. A couple of days after we met Dan in Illinois, we're on the other side of the river in Missouri bumping down a gravel road in our rental car. It's like a grain elevator.

 

Katharine M.: I should have rented the truck.

 

Patrick Michels: We're going to meet a woman who has a lot in common with Dan. First of all, both of them live way out in the country. After getting lost, we finally find it; a farm house on a hill with a garden of irises outside.

 

Katharine M.: This dog looks mad, you can get out first.

 

Patrick Michels: I'm so sorry, Google took us way down the road. Anyway, we're very late.

 

Nancy Guyton: That's okay. This is quite a place, as you can see.

 

Patrick Michels: It's amazing. That's Nancy Guyton. She's a welcoming host, even though we've kept her waiting more than half an hour. She has these determined sharp eyes that tell you instantly she's not someone you want to mess with. She and Dan are both in their 70s, they both live on farms that have been in their families for generations.

 

Nancy Guyton: That's my son, he's spraying for bugs.

 

Patrick Michels: Like Dan, Nancy drives us around to tour the fields.

 

Nancy Guyton: This is corn, and this is corn. They're down planting beans.

 

Katharine M.: Her fields, they filled up with water in the great flood too.

 

Nancy Guyton: In 1993, we started flooding on July 4th.

 

Katharine M.: Just like Dan, she took a big hit. She lost crops and got wiped out.

 

Nancy Guyton: I came down here and cleaned out this house. Snakes in the cabinet, everything.

 

Katharine M.: Nancy remembers some absurd moments too.

 

Nancy Guyton: I was standing out here, just resting a few minutes, and a van drove up. It was FEMA. They gave me a white bucket, some CLR, a map, and a six pack of Mountain Dew. I laughed, it was hilarious.

 

Katharine M.: Did you drink it, the Mountain Dew?

 

Nancy Guyton: No, I don't drink that stuff.

 

Katharine M.: For all Dan and Nancy have in common, when it comes to preventing flooding, there's a raging river between them. Driving around, she shows us why.

 

Nancy Guyton: I might be able to get you down to Bush Landing here.

 

Katharine M.: We don't get very far.

 

Nancy Guyton: There you go.

 

Katharine M.: Wow.

 

Patrick Michels: Holy cow.

 

Nancy Guyton: I thought we'd see it.

 

Katharine M.: If we keep driving, we'd be in the water.

 

Nancy Guyton: Yeah, so we're not going to, but that road is under water. There you go.

 

Patrick Michels: Nancy wants to take us to the river bank, but we can't get there because the river is coming to us. Over the years she says this has been happening more and more often.

 

Nancy Guyton: We dodge water a lot down here. It went from infrequent to frequent.

 

Patrick Michels: She thinks that's because Dan and other people across the river have been raising their levees for extra protection.

 

Nancy Guyton: Especially since 2008, you see a very definite change. The river doesn't have anywhere to go.

 

Patrick Michels: She says that the Sny Levee is overbuilt and that it should be lowered to protect the families and farms over here on the Missouri side of the river.

 

Nancy Guyton: When you farm along the river, you're going to experience floods. If you can't handle that, then sell your land and move to higher ground. Don't ask your neighbors to flood so you can live off the fat of the land, that's just not fair.

 

Patrick Michels: Back in Illinois, Dan's not buying it.

 

Dan Lundberg: You got people below us, I'm not going to mention any names, but I'll tell you, they're trying to stir it all up.

 

Patrick Michels: He says that maybe the people on the Missouri side, Nancy's side, should invest more in flood protection instead of blaming their neighbors across the way and upstream.

 

Dan Lundberg: I'm not saying that people are smarter here, but I think they've got some vision that maybe they don't have in the Missouri bottom.

 

Katharine M.: While there are some levees around Nancy's land, they're nowhere near as high as the Sny. Nancy think they're high enough and that Dan should lower his. He has no intention of doing that.

 

Patrick Michels: Which puts Dan and Nancy in an arms race. Not of guns and tanks, but of dirt and sand.

 

Al Letson: Who has the high ground in this levee war? Should they build higher levees on Nancy's side of the river, or are the levees on Dan's side of the river causing problems because they're too high already? We wanted to look at the science behind levees, so we called in Lisa Song from ProPublica. They're our partners on today's show. Hi Lisa.

 

Lisa Song: Hi Al.

 

Al Letson: Lisa is a Pulitzer Prize winning science and environmental reporter. She's going to break it down for us. Okay Lisa, I'm ready for my science lesson. I should warn you, science is not my thing so please go slow.

 

Lisa Song: Okay. We wanted to show how levees actually impact rivers and flooding. The best way that we could think of was actually to build a miniature model of a river and put real water through it, and see what happens. We hired these scientists at the University of Minnesota to build us a model.

 

Al Letson: Now we're seeing a time lapse video of them creating the river. Back in the day, my dad and I used to make trains, and this kind of looks like the train settings that we would make.

 

Lisa Song: Yeah, that is the general idea. It is sort of similar to a giant model train set. It's a box about 10 feet by 13 feet. Then they built a river channel in there, they piped real water through it. We decided to film what would happen if we would actually put levees on the river.

 

Al Letson: Now the water is going through the channel, and I'm beginning to see it seeping out as more water comes in.

 

Lisa Song: Right, and this is what happens on a natural river with no levees. As soon as the water gets high enough, the river floods, and everything on the floodplain gets swamped.

 

Al Letson: Okay, now what happens if you start building levees?

 

Lisa Song: Then we ran the model again, the scientists built a levee on either side of the river.

 

Al Letson: Now, about the same amount of water is coming down the channel. The water is for the most part staying in the river, it's not floating out.

 

Lisa Song: Right, 'cause we now have levees along both sides of this river. The levees are basically the same height, so both sides of the river are basically equally protected. The same amount of water that we had in the first video where it was flooding the floodplain, now when you send that same amount of water down the river, it's not flooding the floodplain.

 

Lisa Song: At a certain point though, when the flood gets high enough, it will be big enough to go over both of the levees. That's when you can still get flooding, but it's a sort of equal opportunity disaster for both sides.

 

Al Letson: In the third movie, we see the exact same model, but now on one side of the levee, they're actually adding more height to it.

 

Lisa Song: In a situation like that, when it starts to flood, the side with the higher levees stays dry, while the side with the lower levee is going to flood first. You actually have the side with the higher levee pushing extra water onto the side with the lower levees. This is basically what's happening with Dan's community and Nancy's community.

 

Lisa Song: The side of the river behind Dan's levee, they are better protected because they have built their levees higher. Those people on the other side of the river where Nancy lives, some of those communities have lower levees and some have actually no levees at all. They are at a disadvantage.

 

Al Letson: Basically, Nancy has a point.

 

Lisa Song: Yes.

 

Al Letson: Lisa, you're going to come back and talk to us later on in the show about some solutions, right?

 

Lisa Song: Yes, I'll be back.

 

Al Letson: Okay, well, we'll talk to you then. Lisa Song is a Pulitzer Prize winning science and environmental reporter with ProPublica. Who can sort out Dan and Nancy's feud?

 

Speaker 4: We can't just keep escalating the levee wars.

 

Al Letson: When we come back, we meet the people who are supposed to keep the peace. You're listening to Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Speaker 5: Today's episode of Reveal is brought to you by Losing Earth, A Recent History by Nathaniel Rich. A groundbreaking chronicle on climate change, that Elizabeth Kolbert calls, "An important contribution to the record of our heedless age." By 1979, we knew nearly everything we understand today about climate change. Over the next decade, a handful of scientists, politicians and strategists risked their careers in a desperate campaign to convince the world to act. Losing Earth is their story and ours. Just published by MCD. More at Nathanielrich.com.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigate Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal, I'm Al Letson. Today, we're airing a show we did last year with our partners at ProPublica. We're talking about farmers who are neighbors with a river running between them, neighbors who are locked in a modern day war over levees.

 

Dan Lundberg: We got people below us, I mean, I'm not going to mention any names, but I'll tell you, they're trying to stir it all up.

 

Nancy Guyton: That's just not fair. They're not being reasonable.

 

Al Letson: Nancy Guyton thinks the levee protecting Dan Lundberg's property is too high. Dan thinks his levee is just fine, thanks. And we just heard what the science says. When the levees on one side of the river are higher than the other, it causes flooding across the way. But scientists don't decide who gets flooded. Politicians do.

 

Al Letson: So Reveal's Patrick Michels and Catherine Mieszkowski went to a conference in St. Louis where the people who are making those decisions were all in one room. They take it from here.

 

Patrick Michels: If you've ever wondered what a meeting of Midwestern water policy experts looks like, I'll paint you a picture. We're in a large windowless conference room in the basement of a Hampton Inn in downtown St. Louis. State and federal officials face each other around a U-shaped set of tables. There are PowerPoint presentations, flood inundation maps and thankfully, free coffee in the back.

 

Patrick Michels: There's this one moment that really sets the tone. It's during a break between PowerPoints. One guy at the table jokes that he needs a little technical assistance, maybe from the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA about his hotel room.

 

Speaker 6: A pipe broke and my room flooded so I might require ...

 

Speaker 7: Do you have insurance?

 

Speaker 8: What preventative measure did you take? Was everything up on the bed?

 

Katharine M.: The people here are in charge of river policy for five states along the upper Mississippi, including Illinois and Missouri. They've been working for years to create a plan to manage flooding that everyone can agree on, but so far there's no plan, no agreement. For now, there are only studies.

 

Scott Whitney: Many of you have you been along for the ride for the last year and a half that we've been working on this long awaited, much anticipated hydraulic model.

 

Patrick Michels: That's Scott Whitney, a flood risk manager for the Army Corps of Engineers who's based in Illinois. After his presentation, I asked Scott, "Is the Sny levee that protects Dan Lundberg's side of the Mississippi really higher than it's supposed to be?"

 

Scott Whitney: A lot of different versions of the truth out there.

 

Patrick Michels: Are the numbers right, still, that they are in fact overbuilt from where they were authorized?

 

Scott Whitney: Absolutely, there's no ... We've known that more than a decade. We've been trying to work with our partners.

 

Patrick Michels: In other words, the Army Corps studied the levee and agreed with Nancy. They took measurements that proved the Sny had been raised, and in 2015 the Corps sent a letter telling the people who run the district to lower the levee. Dan and the other Sny commissioners refused. They say that ever since Hurricane Katrina, the Corps has been trying to overregulate them.

 

Patrick Michels: And Dan says the Corps' numbers were wrong. But the Corps came up with more evidence. They put together a computer model that showed that if the 1993 flood happened today, flooding at Nancy's would be worse because the Sny and six other nearby levees are too high.

 

Katharine M.: So the Army Corps has been telling the Sny to take their levee down a notch for years, but they're not exactly out there with bulldozers and shovels tearing it down.

 

Scott Whitney: It's not as easy 'cause we don't have an enforcement arm. We don't have the ability to go out and bring the police. The states own the responsibility for enforcement in the floodplain, floodplain rules and regulations.

 

Katharine M.: But what happens when the river is the state line? Remember, Dan's in Illinois and Nancy's in Missouri. Missouri can't force Dan to lower his levee in Illinois. Illinois could do something about it, but how likely is that?

 

Patrick Michels: I took a little road trip to find out. So I'm in Springfield, Illinois and along the shadow of the tall dome of the State Capitol. I was going to see a Democratic state senator.

 

Speaker 9: Hi.

 

Patrick Michels: Where is Senator Koehler's office?

 

Speaker 9: Right around the corner here. You want to talk to Bob.

 

Patrick Michels: Thank you. Senator Dave Koehler has been trying to de-escalate this cross state conflict.

 

Senator Koehler: We can't just keep escalating the levee wars.

 

Patrick Michels: He put forward a bill to try to reign in levee districts in his own state, but ...

 

Senator Koehler: We really couldn't come together on this at all.

 

Patrick Michels: For officials in Illinois, there's just not much incentive to bring their levees down.

 

Senator Koehler: The people in Missouri can complain all they want to, it doesn't cost me a vote. See, and that's the problem, is that we all protect our parochial interests. We have to look at this in a much more global way.

 

Patrick Michels: For the record, the state of Illinois did send a notice of violation to the Sny Levee district in 2015, telling them their levee was too high. So another letter from another agency, but nothing changes. I asked him, "What else can the state do? Should the state start filing lawsuits to bring levee district in line?"

 

Senator Koehler: Those are always been very political. That's why we're trying to come up with a plan that hopefully makes some sense out of this.

 

Patrick Michels: In other words, don't hold your breath, Nancy.

 

Katharine M.: Nancy isn't holding her breath, but she's not giving up, either.

 

Nancy Guyton: Make these people take those levees back to authorized height.

 

Katharine M.: She's convinced that there's one more government agency that could actually do something here.

 

Nancy Guyton: FEMA can do it. FEMA can lower the boom and the boom needs to be lowered.

 

Katharine M.: FEMA, it turns out, also sent a letter warning the Sny. But FEMA has something that the other agencies don't, something that Dan and the Sny Levee district really care about, a flood insurance subsidy program. But to be eligible for it, your levee has to follow all state and federal laws.

 

Katharine M.: Farmers like Dan are getting the insurance but they're breaking the rules. So why hasn't FEMA pulled the insurance from people who are violating the law? We spent months trying to arrange an interview.

 

Speaker 10: You have reached the regional office of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. If you are calling about a disaster, please press one.

 

Katharine M.: But in the end the agency declined to talk with us.

 

Patrick Michels: Okay, so basically none of the state and federal regulators has been willing to lower the boom. That leaves just a couple more ranks up the ladder. That's Congress and ultimately the president, and there in Washington is where this levee war has really heated up.

 

Dan Lundberg: I go to Washington D. C. about twice a year.

 

Patrick Michels: That's Dan again. He's part of a lobbying group that's spent almost a quarter of a million dollars for less regulation and more local control. It's a low profile campaign funded by levee districts from all over the country. The levee districts get their money by taxing landowners, so they're spending public money to get the Army Corps out of their business. They've even hired professional lobbyists to help. How do you think the standoff is going to end?

 

Dan Lundberg: I guess it all depends on whether Trump gets back in or not. He's eliminated a lot of regulations that were just, in my opinion, were stupidity.

 

Patrick Michels: Nancy's also been pleading her case to lawmakers, but on a much smaller scale. When she wants to go to Washington D. C., or do a study about the river, she's paying out of her own pocket.

 

Nancy Guyton: I stopped counting, just over $26000 of my own money. I'm up to 28, 29.

 

Patrick Michels: Nancy doesn't have a levee district behind her. She has just a small association, Neighbors of the Mississippi.

 

Katharine M.: Nancy wants people like Dan to follow the rules, but Dan's group wants fewer rules. And Nancy's not just worried about the way things are now, she's worried about where things could go. She's seen a proposal, a map where her farm would be sacrificed to flood waters so that other communities would be saved. She told us about it while she drove us around.

 

Patrick Michels: And that's the potential flood way they're talking about, it's all [crosstalk 00:25:46].

 

Nancy Guyton: Yeah, that's what they're saying. We want you hicks to give us everything you have so we can continue to prosper while you suffer. That's the name of their game and it's a very cruel game.

 

Al Letson: Nancy's fear isn't so farfetched. The Army Corps makes calculations about which land can be given up to the river to protect more valuable property, and it's already got a few places set aside to do just that. They were created almost 100 years ago. In the summer of 1926, heavy rains drenched the Midwest, and it kept raining into 1927.

 

Al Letson: Back then, there were levees on the Mississippi, but they couldn't hold the river this time. It was the worst flood ever on the Mississippi. Levees broke in a 145 places and seven states flooded. More half a million people lost their homes. Hundreds of people died, some estimate over a thousand. Flooding across the country was so epic people wrote songs about it, like blues singer Bessie Smith.

 

Al Letson: And Americans demanded action. That's why the Army Corps added something new, flood ways, release valves for the river. Congress paid landowners for the right to flood their fields when the Mississippi got too high. Here's Patrick and Katharine again.

 

Patrick Michels: One of these places was a stretch of timberland in southeast Missouri. Just ten years later, the Mississippi was running high and the Corps flooded it. Decades passed and the Corps didn't have to use the flood way again until ...

 

Speaker 11: In southeast Missouri the water is rising so fast, residents have been told not to bother with sandbags.

 

Patrick Michels: It's around Easter 2011, when the Mississippi River starts creeping up its banks again. Up around Dan and Nancy's farms, it's a pretty big flood, but 200 miles down river, the water is running dangerously high. Millions of acres of farmland are at risk, along with the city of Cairo, Illinois. The Governor of Missouri gave a warning.

 

Speaker 12: We're talking about record highs of that Mississippi and Missouri, where they come together at the Ohio there, it's a lot of water and a lot of action.

 

Katharine M.: The water keeps rising but the Corps is ready. They have that flood way, 130000 acres ready to go. All they need to do is blow up a levee that's in front of it.

 

Patrick Michels: Missouri officials don't want land in their state to get washed away, so they sue to stop the Corps. Then Illinois officials go to court arguing the Corps should blow the levee. The Corps waits as long as it can, but when the river tops 60 feet and then 61, officials finally give the signal. From a tanker out on the water, the Corps pumps liquid explosive into pipes in the levee.

 

Speaker 13: There it is! Did you see it? It just happened.

 

Patrick Michels: A wave of water rushes through the breach. The river goes down and Cairo is saved. The decision is controversial, but basically the plan works. Here's how a Corps official named Karen Durham Aguilera explains it on CSPAN.

 

Speaker 14: Under what law is the Army Corps authorized to blow up a levee?

 

Karen Durham-A.: Well, let's step back for a second, you know. We say blow up a levee, but we're really doing is operating a flood way as a design. It's a flood way.

 

Katharine M.: This is the solution that smart river policy makers like. Instead of just walling off the river, giving the water somewhere to go, the Army Corps declared victory. But there was a town full of people who weren't celebrating. See, the flood way wasn't just farmland. There was a small town of African American farmers right in the middle of it.

 

Debra R. T.: I know my grandson was very hurt by it. He couldn't understand why they would put that much water on us.

 

Katharine M.: Debra Robinson Tarver lived in the town called Pinhook. She was also the mayor and she says that she and her neighbors were completely cut out of the decision to open the flood way. The Army Corps didn't consult them. Even the state of Missouri didn't mention the town of Pinhook when it sued the Army Corps to prevent the levee from being blown.

 

Katharine M.: Instead, the lawsuit focused on the big farms in the flood way and Deborah, the mayor, said no one called her about evacuating.

 

Debra R. T.: The lady that works behind me, she said that she saw it in on the Facebook that it was to be a mandatory evacuation, so I immediately start calling emergency management to see what's going on.

 

Katharine M.: Some Pinhook residents were elderly in wheelchairs. Debra wanted to know if she needed to get her people out of there. The response she got ...

 

Debra R. T.: Well, just stand down. They just getting excited. Nothing's gonna happen.

 

Katharine M.: But Deborah didn't believe that and got her people out. Days later, the town was under ten feet of brown river water, and they had no place to live.

 

Al Letson: How does a town wind up in the middle of a flood way? Deborah's dad, Jim Robinson, was there when it happened. It was early in the 1940s. He told the story to a traveling state historian 20 years ago.

 

Jim Robinson: This is what you would call virgin land and the three big timber giants had cut all of the big virgin timber, all the good timber and sold it, all sold. There was no immediate use for the land anymore. That's why it sold so cheaply.

 

Al Letson: Jim was nine years old when his dad and four other black families bought 80 acres in the flood way. Jim's dad was a sharecropper and a tenant farmer. He'd moved around the south looking for a place with more opportunity and less racism. In most places, no white landowners would sell but the timber companies that owned this flood way said they would.

 

Jim Robinson: That's the beginning of this Pinhook area.

 

Patrick Michels: The farmer's cleared the land by hand, built homes and a church, a school and a store. Along with the threat that the government might flood them, there was another risk they faced from the river, a small gap in the levee that sometimes made the land flood. Every now and then, a house would need to be rebuilt, but it was all part of life in Pinhook. As the town grew, they tried to convince the government to plug that gap.

 

Jim Robinson: My dad had worked until his death trying to get the people, or the higher-ups to see how bad we needed flood control down in this area, but they just can't see happen. And I always kind of say, we got too many minorities there. They did not help them. They just won't do it.

 

Al Letson: After all, the Corps had decided this land was supposed to flood.

 

Jim Robinson: I just pray that I could live to see the day when that levees' plugged up, to know that my family would be protected.

 

Al Letson: Jim Robinson died in 2004. Seven years later, Pinhook was in ruins. Last May, I went to see what's left of the town. I jumped in the station wagon with couple of professors, Todd Lawrence and Elaine Lawless. They'd just written a book about Pinhook.

 

Elaine Lawless: Cool on where you're going, Todd?

 

Todd Lawrence: Yep.

 

Elaine Lawless: Great.

 

Todd Lawrence: This is the exit here. I sort of know what I'm doing.

 

Al Letson: Elaine had never heard of Pinhook until she read a story about how it was destroyed.

 

Elaine Lawless: Of course, it was a deal with the devil because it was the only land that was available to African Americans to buy in all. At the same time, they said, "But you realize it's in the spillway."

 

Al Letson: Todd is a former student of hers. He was drawn to Pinhook's history because his family comes from another African American farm town in Missouri. For seven years Todd and Elaine have been asking people from Pinhook to tell their story, the one the Army Corps left out of its official record.

 

Todd Lawrence: For Pinhook people especially, it's almost like they never existed and they don't exist, you know. That's the thing that we've come to see over the years that's really problematic about this whole thing.

 

Al Letson: After a few more miles bouncing along a gravel road, we turn right and I get my first look at the town.

 

Todd Lawrence: This would have been their houses all here. This is actually a street, and there were houses here.

 

Elaine Lawless: This looks worse every year. I mean, if you drove by this, you would not know that was a town, would you?

 

Al Letson: Tall weeds are growing through cracks in a concrete foundation. This was the house that Jim Robinson built for his wife Aretha. Down the road, we find what's left of the old Baptist Church.

 

Todd Lawrence: Someone burned it down after the flood, which happened to a lot of the houses that left out here after everyone moved away. Arsonists came out here, they stripped them of copper and they burned the house down. Then they stripped it of everything that was valuable.

 

Al Letson: After their town was obliterated, people had to figure things out for themselves. Debra, the mayor, says they got less help because they lived inside a flood way. So, they scattered. Some people stayed with family. Some moved away entirely, but they still consider themselves a community.

 

Speaker 15: Always good to come on back home.

 

Speaker 16: Yep, no place like home.

 

Speaker 17: Still the same place.

 

Speaker 18: Ain't much to see, but we set it on the ground.

 

Al Letson: This is Memorial Day Weekend, but out here it's Pinhook Day, the annual homecoming. Dozens of people who used to live in Pinhook, or who spent their summers here as kids are coming back. People drive up, park next to the field, unload their coolers.

 

Speaker 17: What's up, bro?

 

Al Letson: Bert Robinson, he's the son of Jim and Aretha Robinson is frying catfish and chicken in big pots of oil. Vincent, he's the son of Jim and Aretha Robinson is frying cat fish and chicken in big pots of oil.

 

Speaker 16: Yeah, it's all right. My mama makes the best fish seasoning you ever tasted.

 

Al Letson: One guy takes kids for a tour on a four wheeler, telling them about how things used to be, and there's a small crowd gathering around a poster with photos of the flood.

 

Speaker 19: Look at that water. That's our highway there, ain't it?

 

Speaker 20: Yeah.

 

Speaker 19: Yeah.

 

Al Letson: And Debra Robinson Tarver, the mayor of what's left of Pinhook, who we met earlier is running around welcoming people.

 

Debra R. T.: I seen somebody else coming up. Hey. How you doing?

 

Al Letson: After the town was wiped out, Debra took the lead trying to get answers from the Army Corps and help from FEMA.

 

Debra R. T.: I felt in my heart that what they did was wrong. Okay, I felt that they should've stepped up to the plate and said, "Okay, we did this. We're sorry for what we done, you know, we're gonna come back and we'll make amends for what has happened." That didn't happen. It was like I knew what I had to do, and that's fight for what we needed, and that was a roof over our heads. We didn't want no more than what we had and they did not provide us a place to go. They did not provide us with things we needed.

 

Al Letson: Instead, they got help from a crew of Mennonite volunteers led by this guy who's also here today.

 

Jeff Koller: Jeff Koller, Mennonite disaster service, regional operations coordinator.

 

Al Letson: After the flood, Debra and the others couldn't rebuild their homes in Pinhook, but FEMA did offer some money to rebuild somewhere else. Jeff's group volunteered to provide the labor, but they needed land.

 

Jeff Koller: The original intention was to try to buy 20 or 30 acres somewhere and develop a Pinhook community, but that was not to be. No one wanted to sell the land to them.

 

Al Letson: How is that?

 

Jeff Koller: I need to be very cautious about that. They, I think through Todd and Elaine's work, they've identified an element of racial bias that affected whether landowners would sell to the folks of Pinhook.

 

Al Letson: Whenever Deborah found some land, there was always a problem. Something wrong with the zoning or the utilities, or the land cost more than FEMA would pay, and at least once when everything else lined up right, a seller backed out after hearing what Debra had planned. She says, FEMA let her know that the clock was ticking.

 

Debra R. T.: They said, "Well, we'll give you so long to try to come up with some land. If you don't get it by X amount of time, then we're gonna go on and not help. Just move on to something else."

 

Al Letson: In the end, they couldn't get enough land to start a new town for everyone. Instead, Debra found seven parcels on the same street in a town about 30 miles away. In April of last year, after seven years without a home, she and just six others from Pinhook moved into their new houses.

 

Debra R. T.: Yes, you have to come by.

 

Speaker 21: All right, we'll check you out.

 

Debra R. T.: I finally got a bed.

 

Al Letson: Some Pinhook folks are neighbors again, but in someone else's city and Pinhook won't ever be anywhere, but right here. A sign planted in the ground nearby says Pinhook reclaimed 2017. They haven't missed a homecoming since the flood, but for years, they held it in another town.

 

Al Letson: Last year was the first time that Pinhook Day was back in Pinhook. Why was it? Was it because it was too hard to get everyone? Like, people couldn't be back here?

 

Debra R. T.: We had to heal. There had to be some healing going on. And even though how much you pray, every time we turn that corner right, when we get up there on the hill, the tears, it was home. You remember that. I mean, you remember you can't go back. It's hard to go back somewhere you've been kicked out of.

 

Al Letson: Pinhook is gone, but now their former neighbors, the big farmers in the flood way have a voice at the highest levels of the Army Corps, just like Jim Robinson wanted decades ago. They'd like to see the gap in the levee closed to keep their land dry. One of them is a farmer and businessman named R.D. James. In 2017, the Trump administration appointed him to lead the Army Corps civil works projects.

 

Al Letson: Is there a better way? Some places are making peace with the river, even when it floods. When we come back, Mark Twain's hometown, that's next on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Today, we've been talking about levees and how they can pit neighbors against each other in a kind of levee arms race.

 

Al Letson: Our partners at ProPublica hired scientists to build a miniature model of a river. They put water through it to see how levees effect flooding along the banks. ProPublica's Lisa Song and I looked at videos of those models, and what we saw is that levees can make flooding worse along the river. Lisa's back now to talk about a better way of preventing flooding. Hey Lisa.

 

Lisa Song: Hi.

 

Al Letson: So, Lisa. How do we fix this problem so that communities aren't building higher and higher levees and are preventing floods?

 

Lisa Song: One of the solutions we looked at is called a setback levee. When communities decide that they are going to take down the levee that they have right next to the river and they're going to rebuild the levee further back on the flood plain. So basically, there's now a whole patch of land right next to the river that is unprotected by a levee, and the idea is you don't let people live there and you allow that land to just be open land, so the next time it floods, the water has somewhere to go.

 

Al Letson: So, I'm looking at the video now, where the water is now spilling out onto this floodplain, but it's not hitting the houses.

 

Lisa Song: Yes, that's the idea is once you build a setback levee, you can have the same amount of water coming down the river as you had in a past flood, but now, that water level will be lowered overall. And, we see these kinds of setback levees in the Netherlands quite often, but we only have a few examples of setback levees in the U.S. They're a type of solution we're just starting to implement.

 

Al Letson: But how's that gonna happen in America? People love living behind the river.

 

Lisa Song: Yeah. So, these kinds of projects in the U.S. only work when a community volunteers to have a setback levee.

 

Al Letson: Lisa, thank you so much for coming in and explaining this to me.

 

Lisa Song: Thank you.

 

Al Letson: Making room for the river sounds nice, but how exactly does that work if your town is already built right on top of the river? To find out, we're going to a place where they've been struggling with the Mississippi since, well, Mark Twain's day.

 

Speaker 22: Okay, so they have Mark Twain coffee mugs, tea towels, ornaments, playing cards, and like a Mark Twain bobble-head.

 

Al Letson: This is Hannibal, Missouri, Mark Twain's hometown.

 

Speaker 22: Yeah, they literally have a book called Mark Twain for Cat lovers, and then they have Mark Twain for Dog Lovers.

 

Al Letson: It's just across the water from Sny Levee, where farmer Dan Lundberg lives and Nancy Guyton, she grew up here, and now she lives about 40 miles away. Reveal reporters, Katherine Mieszkowski and Patrick Michels visited Hannibal last spring.

 

Katharine M.: The town has a kind of Twain theme park feel.

 

Patrick Michels: We're near the river in downtown Hannibal to meet the former mayor, John Lane. So good to meet you finally.

 

John Lane: Well, that remains to be seen.

 

Patrick Michels: So far, so good. Anyway, thanks for meeting us.

 

John Lane: All right.

 

Katharine M.: You can probably already tell John's a bit of a character. He gets right down to poking holes in the Mark Twain machine.

 

John Lane: That's fake. That's not a steam whistle.

 

Katharine M.: What is it?

 

John Lane: It's a sound effect.

 

Patrick Michels: You're kidding?

 

John Lane: This must be the dinner cruise that is leaving right now.

 

Patrick Michels: And yes, that's the Mark Twain Riverboat we're looking at.

 

Katharine M.: Between us and that boat is a giant levee, 34 feet high, built of earth and concrete. The levee protects the historic downtown. John raised money from local businesses to help the Army Corps pay for this levee. It was finished in June 1993. A month later, the big flood hit.

 

Patrick Michels: It sounds like you came in just under the wire basically.

 

John Lane: Yeah, well, of course, we didn't know that. No one said, you know, there's a epic all time record flood coming and we got to be ready for it.

 

Patrick Michels: The levee stood up to the flood, and Mark Twain's boyhood home and the rest of downtown were saved.

 

Katharine M.: But now, we're going to tell you what happened to the other part of town, the south side, that wasn't protected by the Twain legacy or the flood wall. And to do that, we meet up with ...

 

John S. Hark: John S. Hark, I'm the Hannibal Marion county emergency management director.

 

Katharine M.: For almost 50 years, John S. Hark has been the guy who makes sure people in Hannibal stay safe in a flood. He survived his first one when he was just a few weeks old.

 

John S. Hark: We had a major flood and our house was flooded.

 

Patrick Michels: The family moved, but a year later, another flood took that house too. His father had had enough.

 

John S. Hark: He said, "You know, it got me once, I tried to turn to move and do better, it got me the second time, and I decided it'd never get us again."

 

Patrick Michels: So, John grew up with this idea. You can't fight the river forever, but every time it flooded down here, John would scramble to get people out.

 

John S. Hark: We would come in in boats to try to get them to evacuate and leave and one gentleman in particular, I can remember doing my best to talk to him to come out, and he wouldn't do it. He wasn't going to do it.

 

Patrick Michels: You can understand why he didn't want to give up on his neighborhood. When you look at black and white photos, you can see that it was a bustling place with department stores, bars and an antique shop, but it was always at the mercy of the river, because this is the low lying parts of town.

 

Katharine M.: Eventually, the government came up with an escape plan. It bought those properties and tore down the houses. People who lived here sold their homes to the government and moved away. It was a calculated retreat from the river. Now the water would have somewhere to go.

 

John S. Hark: I can sympathize with those that didn't want to go or didn't want to sell, but I can see and fully understand why they did. It was a necessary evil, I guess you could say.

 

Patrick Michels: A necessary evil, because the town and the Army Corps had decided only to protect the historic downtown.

 

Katharine M.: People here were left outside. Today, they're all gone.

 

Speaker 23: It was really weird.

 

Speaker 24: Yeah, it's just flat grass everywhere. Just, I mean, you wouldn't know there was anything here except that it's a rectangle with power lines across it.

 

Speaker 23: Totally. It's a lost neighborhood.

 

Patrick Michels: This spot that was deliberately left outside the cities flood wall, it illustrates something else we've seen again and again up and down the Mississippi. In the cold calculus of flood management, it's the most valuable properties that get the best protection. Hannibal and the Corps sacrificed a low income neighborhood to the river, while protecting the tourist business downtown.

 

Katharine M.: But the thing is scientists would say this is a smart flood policy, get out of the rivers way, give the water somewhere to go.

 

John S. Hark: No levee is ever going to be guaranteed to last and hold back that river forever.

 

Patrick Michels: Of course, that's exactly what the Sny Levee district across the river is trying to do, hold back the water forever. For Dan Lundberg and the other commissioners, it's a point of pride, a family legacy to defend this farm land from one generation to the next.

 

Katharine M.: But over on the other side of the river, Nancy Guyton's also thinking about the legacy she'll leave for her children and grandchildren.

 

Patrick Michels: I think that's one reason everyone's so dug in here. They're fighting about what their piece of land will look like 50 or 100 years from now. Nancy has a bumper sticker that says, "Don't make us another birds' point." Birds Point is the flood way we told you about earlier, where the town of Pinhook was sacrificed to protect other towns and farms along the river.

 

Patrick Michels: I went to see Nancy again last summer. She said she knows she's made enemies behind the Sny, some who used to be friends.

 

Nancy Guyton: Some of them are taking it personally that I'm involved in this and I don't know why. I think it's because I had friends in the Sny, and I think another thing is I don't give up. If I quit, you'll see my name in the obituaries, you know? I mean, it's that simple.

 

Katharine M.: We've heard how people with more money in power get better flood protection and how people with less are often left on the front lines to face the river. We still wondered what does Dan think about this?

 

Patrick Michels: So, late in the season, I went back to the Sny to ask Dan. So, the corn looks pretty different from when we were out here last. Is it getting close to harvest?

 

Dan Lundberg: Oh, yeah. We're probably a month off yet.

 

Patrick Michels: I really just had one question left for Dan. Is what's happening here fair for everyone who lives on the river? When it comes to flood protection, you get what you pay for, you get what you can afford to pay and there's some communities that don't have a lot of money for flood protection. Is that the fair way to do things across the river?

 

Dan Lundberg: I would say yes. I mean, I don't know exactly how to answer that, but from my side of it, yes. I've been there where we had to fight for everything that we got. Things weren't always as good as they are right now. Land values have gone way up, and basically is what we're trying to do is hold onto those land values. And like I said, I've worked my whole life to keep this river out of here. So, I guess that's where I'm coming from.

 

Al Letson: Our story was from Reveal's Patrick Michels and Katherine Mieszkowski. For more on our investigation into the nation's levees with ProPublica, go to revealnews.org. Katherine Mieszkowski was our lead producer this week. Taki Telonidis edited our show. Thanks to the whole amazing team at ProPublica, Lisa Song, Al Shaw, Alexandra Zayas, Katie Campbell, Ranjani Chakraborty, as well as Reveals editor in chief, Amy Pyle.

 

Al Letson: Lori Stern reported in Minneapolis and Phoebe Petrovic researched here in Emeryville. Special thanks to the State Historical Society of Missouri, and to Todd Lawrence and Elaine Lawless for sounds from their documentary Taking Pinhook. Their book, When They Blew the Levee, came out last summer. Our production manager is Najib Aminy, original score and sound design team is the dynamic duo, J. Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. They had help this week from Katherine Rae Mondo and Kaitlin Benz.

 

Al Letson: Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor in chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado-Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

 

Al Letson: Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.