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Buyout Moving Ahead For Bootheel Village Destroyed After Corps Blew Levee In 2011

Residents of a tiny village in Missouri’s Bootheel hope this will be the last Christmas they spend waiting for a federal buyout of their homes that were destroyed in May 2011 when the Army Corps of Engineers blew up a levee to alleviate flooding along the Mississippi River.

The buyout is in a preliminary phase, more than 2 1/2 years after the Corps made the controversial decision to activate the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway for the first time in 74 years to ease flooding in Cairo, Ill., and other towns along the river. The torrent of floodwater unleashed by the explosion destroyed crops and about 200 homes as it swept through the 130,000-acre spillway.

About 30 residents lived in Pinhook, the only incorporated community located in the floodway. The  Mississippi County village was founded by African-American farmers before World War II. 

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio and The Beacon
Pinhook Mayor Debra Tarver saved the cornerstone from the Baptist church that was a gathering place for residents before the flood.

“We’re still holding on to the fact that some day we’ll have our village back and our homes. I know it’s a struggle. I know it’s been tough for my mom and my sisters and family members,’’ said Mayor Debra Tarver who has led efforts to rebuild the community on land outside the floodway.

Though progress has been slow, the project is finally moving ahead, said Stephen Duke, executive director of the Bootheel Regional Planning and Economic Development Commission, which is serving as the administrator. An environmental review has been completed, and property appraisal and title reviews are under way. Once the preliminary steps are complete, buyout offers can be made to residents.

The buyout, which is voluntary, includes 17 residential properties and two public buildings. The cost is estimated at $1.3 million, 75 percent of which would be covered by federal funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). A Community Development Block Grant would cover the remaining 25 percent.

Duke hopes that buyout offers can begin in spring. The properties of owners who accept the buyout will be deeded to the village. Flood-wrecked homes and structures will be demolished. The land will be restricted to agriculture or gardens; no structures can be rebuilt. Duke said the village would be responsible for the maintenance of the land, though a government agency, such as the Missouri Conservation Commission, could agree to take it over.

The long wait has been an ordeal for the village, Duke said.

“They woke up one morning and had a home. And they woke up the next morning and they didn’t.  And they still don’t. That’s the sad part about it,’’ he said.

Duke noted that the buyout process is slow because it must meet the regulations of the agencies involved -- and that takes time.

“It’s kind of like Jell-O,’’ he said. “It sits in the refrigerator for a good while, and you don’t think anything’s happening. All of a sudden you open the door and it’s Jell-O. It doesn’t look like anything’s going on until it happens.’’

The residents of Pinhook were good neighbors who took care of their homes and one another, Tarver told the St. Louis Beacon last spring. Residents used to gather together every Sunday at the Union Baptist Church, which stood at the entrance to the village. Most of the displaced villagers are scattered throughout nearby Bootheel towns as they await resolution.

Tarver said the residents still want to rebuild their community, and they are looking for a site of about 40-acres to purchase. She tries to focus on the future – not the Corps’ decision to blow the levee.

“We’ve just got to keep our heads up and keep our prayers going,’’ she said. “We just want back what we had. Let us go back to living like we were. We weren’t bothering anybody.’’

Read earlier stories published in The Beacon: 

Pinhook, Mo: Spillway residents dream of getting back what they lost when the levee was blown

Pinhook, Mo.: Levee breach destroyed the village, but changing times had already taken a toll

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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