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After flash flooding, Bootheel town pulls itself up by the bootstraps

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 30, 2011 - Eight months since Morehouse, Mo., was devastated by flash flooding, the little Bootheel town has been cleaned up and rebuilt, but residents still question the decision-making that they say put their community in jeopardy.

"The majority of people who were rebuilding are back in their homes, but there is still work to be done,'' said Mayor Pete Leija.

Residents had initially feared that Morehouse -- a town of about 1,000 located 10 miles west of Sikeston -- would never recover after streets and homes were left standing in the smelly, brown floodwater that first crept into town on the night of April 27. The water was up to 4 feet deep in some places, eventually covering about three-quarters of the community and affecting about two-thirds of the 430 homes.

Although the disaster coincided with record Mississippi River flooding and the controversy surrounding the Army Corps of Engineers' decision to activate the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway, it was inland flooding that struck Morehouse. Spring rains had saturated southeast Missouri and overwhelmed the Little River Drainage District -- a web of ditches, levees and diversion channels that drain the Bootheel.

Morehouse residents say the flooding from Little River was made more severe because of a temporary earthen berm built by the Missouri Department of Transportation along the westbound lanes of Highway 60 to keep that road open. MoDOT officials have said there is no evidence to support that claim.

Leija said the flooding issues remain unresolved and townspeople are still skeptical of MoDOT's actions last spring. He said the town should have been alerted about the decision to build the dam to keep water off the highway. Because some residents are still threatening to sue the agency, Leija wants to hold a town meeting where they can vent their frustrations to state officials and their elected representatives.

Longtime residents insist that they had never seen anything like the flooding in April; few had flood insurance because, they said, the town had never flooded.

"I still think that someone owes us an explanation for that," Leija said. "[MoDot] doesn't want to take responsibility for the fact that they caused a lot of this flooding because they said we were going to flood anyway. But common sense would tell you that we would have flooded maybe 6 inches; but if you build a dam it goes to 2 foot. That added to the problem."

On the positive side, Leija said the town has made progress in its cleanup efforts. The state of Missouri provided workers and equipment to help clear ditches and pick up debris that had been deposited throughout Morehouse by the floodwater. A mountain of debris from rehabbed homes has also been hauled away.

"We're still a bit lacking,'' Leija said. "But for the most part we got 98 percent of the debris and 60 to 70 percent of the ditches cleaned. We didn't get as much done on the roads.''

The Sikeston School District, which decided in June to close the elementary school in Morehouse as a budget-cutting action, has since given the buildings to the town, Leija said. The town will use some of the space for administrative offices and will retain the gymnasium as a public space but plans to lease the other buildings as a day-care facility and possibly an assisted living center.

Another note of progress: A Dollar General store is being built on the edge of town.

"People in town are excited about that and looking forward to it,'' Leija said.

Leija said his town could serve as a case study for emergency disaster relief and he remains frustrated with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which he says has now informed the town that some of the already rebuilt homes need to be elevated above the flood plain.

"My real problem with FEMA is that they launched a massive amount of people in here, and they were providing all kinds of different types of information,'' he said. "Their people were telling the residents this and that -- and the next guy would tell them something different.''

Leija said that he and his town remain grateful to faith-based organizations and the hundreds of volunteers who assisted residents in cleanup and recovery efforts.

"It is just such a blessing to know that there are a lot of people out there who really cared,'' he said. "They came from great distances and stayed for a great length of time. I was teetotally impressed. You just can't say enough about them.''

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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