Pinhook, Mo: Spillway residents dream of getting back what they lost when the levee was blown
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - The countryside seems to get emptier every time Debra Tarver visits Pinhook, the tiny village in Missouri’s Mississippi County that was her family’s home until the Army Corps of Engineers blew a big hole in the levee on May 2, 2011, allowing the rampaging Mississippi River to storm the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.
“I don’t come down often,” said Tarver, 55, as she surveyed acres and acres of floodway from the car window. “It’s just painful. There used to be houses all along here. They’re gone. The people are gone.”
On this blustery winter afternoon, the roadway was as empty as the 10 miles of farmland between East Prairie — the nearest town outside the spillway — and the village that “used to be.”
“There used to be houses right here,” Tarver said, pointing at the openness. “My cousin's house was right there. There was a house in that corner. Right there was a house. And right here.”
Even the road sign that used to announce to motorists that they were now passing through Pinhook — population 52 — is gone. The handful of structures still standing in this historic community founded by African-American farmers are shattered shells of the modest but well-kept homes that they used to be.
Tarver said the residents were good neighbors who used to gather every Sunday to sing with joy the same songs at the Union Baptist Church. They seldom see one another now because they are scattered throughout nearby Bootheel towns waiting for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to rule on a proposed buyout of their property.
The buyout, which would be voluntary, includes 17 residential properties and two public buildings, said Stephen Duke, executive director of the Bootheel Regional Planning and Economic Development Commission. The cost is estimated at $1.3 million, 75 percent of which would be covered by federal funding. A second application to the state seeks a Community Development Block Grant for the remaining 25 percent.
Pinhook residents hope to then secure additional funding to purchase land outside the floodway where they can rebuild as a community, said Tarver, chairwoman of the Pinhook village board. She is helping to lead the rebuilding efforts.
“Just give us our home and a place to be where we can start over again. That’s all anybody wants,” she said. “I just want back what we had. I’m not asking for no more, no less.”
Nearly two years have passed since the Corps activated the floodway to alleviate flooding in Cairo, Ill., and other towns along the Mississippi. Pinhook remains abandoned and deteriorating.
The ruins of the Union Baptist Church that served as a gathering place for Pinhook residents. The church walls withstood the flood waters but were later destroyed by fire.
Scavengers have picked through the bones of Tarver’s village, helping themselves to marketable scrap metal. Vandals set fire to a number of the structures, including Tarver’s beloved Union Baptist Church. The church’s sturdy brick walls that stood up to the 10- to 15-foot wall of water unleashed by the open levee were reduced to a pile of loose bricks and rubble.
“Every time I come, there’s something different. Somebody has messed up something that they have no business messing with,” said Tarver, who worries that her community's plight has fallen off the radar screen.
Pinhook received some publicity during the controversy that raged in the days leading up to the Corps’ decision to “activate” the 130,000-acre floodway for the first time in 74 years to deal with an out-of-control river that had swelled to historic levels. Reporters from national media outlets covered the levee explosions, though much of the drama was reduced to a simplistic equation: Saving Missouri farmland vs. saving the people of an Illinois town.
About 200 people lived in the floodway at the time, and most of their 100 or so homes were destroyed. The Corps has repaired the breaches it made in the levee, but only a handful of people have rebuilt homes.
Tarver said the floodway's farmers have received some support from the agricultural community, but Pinhook — just 1.6 square miles with fewer than two-dozen homes — was a place so small that she fears it could be forgotten.
“I just really don’t know what else to do other than pray and ask the Lord to guide us to where we need to be or where we need to go,” Tarver said. “To this point, I think we’ve been very humble. We have not pointed fingers or raised any confusion. All we have done is to apply for grants to help us out.”
‘I am tired of studying the same old mud’
The battle for Pinhook’s rebirth is one that Tarver knows her father — Jim Robinson Jr. — would have waged. Until his death in 2004, Robinson was the spokesman for village residents who had long sought relief from the backwater that seeped into the southern section of the floodway nearly every spring.
Aretha Robinson’s ruined home in Pinhook.
Robinson lived in Pinhook most of his life. His father had moved his family to the area in the early 1940s, drawn by the availability of cheap land that black farmers were allowed to buy, despite the limitations of the Jim Crow era.
Pinhook, which reached its prime after World War II, once had about 250 residents, plus little grocery stores, its own schools and several churches. Over time, many of those residents relocated to cities in search of jobs. Others, who would have stayed for the rural life and affordability, were eventually driven out by the backwater, said Tarver.
The marker shows the location of Pinhook. The blue line approximates the western levee in the floodway — the land between that line and the river was under water when the floodway was activated.
FEMA produced a video about Pinhook and the residents’ decision about what to do next
That spring flooding, which is caused by floodwater that enters through a 1,500-foot gap in the levee system near New Madrid when the river is high, has been a persistent problem for southern residents of the floodway. And the Corps’ proposal to close this “hole” in the levee has for decades pitted local residents and agricultural interests against state and national environmental groups. Though Congress first authorized action to close the gap in the 1950s, the St. Johns Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project has been held up by funding issues and court challenges. Recently, the controversy again surfaced among congressional leaders who are once again debating the value, cost and impact of the project.
On June 18, 2002, Robinson testified before the U.S. Senate’s committee on environment and public works about the project that he believed would have changed life for the people of Pinhook. Robinson didn’t mince words.
“I have met with people here in Washington and they all seem like they want to help, like they understand what we are up against. But every time we get close, somebody from the EPA or Fish and Wildlife Service says the Corps has to go study some more,” Robinson told the senators.
He summed up the decades of frustration in a sentence that former U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., a proponent of the project, was fond of quoting: “I am tired of studying the same old mud.”
Robinson told the lawmakers how hard his family had worked to clear the land, equipped with only axes and mules.
“The land that I farm was purchased by my father when we moved from Tennessee. My people were not allowed to own certain lands or live in town. We were only able to purchase the land that the Mississippi River flooded,” he testified.
He pointed out that Pinhook residents lived with the constant threat of flooding, while others along the river were protected.
“I don’t know how many of you have ever been through a flood and know what it is like to have raw sewage in your home,” he said. “What it is like when you get out of bed in the morning to have to wade through that mess. To have your children live in it. For them to have to ride in a tractor-drawn open wagon through the water just to get to a school bus. My people should not have to live that way year after year.
“If I go north to St. Louis, I see fine homes surrounded by big levees, or if I go south to Memphis I see that same thing. Those people have been able to build their levees and protect their homes. I don’t want to take that away from them, I just want the same thing for us.”
‘We knew we were in a flood zone’
In the end, it wasn’t the backwater from the south that ruined Pinhook. It was the mighty deluge from the north that inundated the floodway when the levee was intentionally breached.
“We knew we were in a flood zone, but they said they would probably never have to do it again after ’37,” said Aretha Robinson, 73, Tarver’s mother, who lost her home in the flood and now lives in a rented house in Sikeston, about 35 miles from Pinhook. “We thought they would never do it. Pinhook was such a nice little community. Everybody knew everybody. Everybody helped everybody. Everybody just loved each other.”
The floodway had been developed by the Corps as part of its flood-control system on the lower Mississippi after the devastating flood of 1927. The Corps had paid the then-landowners for the right to flood their land — a narrow strip about 4 to 12 miles wide and 35 miles long that included the area that would later be settled by Pinhook residents. Before 2011, the floodway had been used only once — in 1937 — before Robinson’s father-in-law arrived from Tennessee.
Robinson said the waiting grows more difficult as the months pass.
“We’ve tried to fight — to get relocated and rebuilt, but we haven’t heard anything so far,” she said.
Robinson said she isn’t angry about what happened.
“I’m not really mad,” she said. “You get upset and depressed about it sometimes. But you just pray and go on. That’s all you can do.”
‘If tears could build a stairway’
After Jim Robinson Jr. passed away on April 9, 2004, he was buried in the Missouri State Veterans Cemetery in Bloomfield, but his family built a memorial park in his honor on his land in Pinhook. They chose a location he loved — next to the five-bedroom stone home that he and Aretha built themselves in the late 1970s on a slight hill that the backwater couldn't climb.
The Robinson family planted trees and installed a gazebo, where people were welcome to sit and enjoy the view. Much of the memorial was swept away by the flood. Amid the ruins is a plaque, now broken into two:
If Tears Could Build A
Stairway, And Memories
A Lane, I’d Walk Right Up
To Heaven And Bring
You Home Again.
From the remnants of the gazebo, the view of the countryside is once again alive with birds and deer and wildlife, in contrast to the wrecked house that the Robinsons once called home. The windows are busted out, the curtains blowing in and out of the openings, with the gusts of wind. The front of the house — which was made of Tennessee stone that the Robinsons set into place by hand — is nearly intact, but the back of the house was shredded by the force of the water punching its way through.
“We can’t ever go back there,” said Robinson, who wed on Christmas Day in 1955, and lived in Pinhook most of her married life.
She hopes to salvage the stone from the ruins to use on a new home she dreams of building in a new Pinhook, outside the floodway.
Robinson and Tarver say it would be impossible to rebuild on the village site — even if they had the desire to do so — because of floodplain restrictions that require new homes to be elevated, either on stilts or earthen mounds, 10 to 15 feet above ground level.
“As long as they can put their finger on that button to blow it up, we don’t want to go back,” Tarver said.
Although the backwater was a mess, it didn’t tear up their homes, Tarver said. That damage was fixable. But after seeing the floodway activated — something she never thought she’d see — closing the southern gap in the levee is no longer the driving issue for Pinhook residents.
“They’ve run the people out already,” she said. “There’s nothing but farmers in the floodway now, and they just use the homes for farm season. They finished what they started out to do. They got rid of us. My hats off to them for whatever they’re going to do. I’m not mad at them, but at the same time, I would expect that if you’re going to run somebody out, you’re going to need to set them back up again.”