Five Years is Too Long


It’s a story I must have told a hundred times by now: a small black town in southeast Missouri, a record breaking flood, a floodway that had only been operated once before, a federal agency just following orders, and the devastating destruction that followed a breached levee. Every time I tell it, whether to a group of friends, a curious individual, or a large audience, the response is always the same: “how could this have happened?” It’s a good question.

This Monday, May 2nd, at 10:02 pm will mark five years since the intentional breaching of the Birds Point levee in Mississippi County, Missouri – five years since the Mississippi river poured through the breaches made in the frontside levee by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, submerging every structure inside the floodway with over twenty feet of water. In the time since, the displaced residents of Pinhook, Mo, the only organized community located inside the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway (one of four floodways on the Mississippi River between St. Louis and the Gulf of Mexico), have had to sit by while other victims of disaster have received help from government agencies. To this date, Pinhook residents have received nothing.

It’s a difficult story to tell, a story of indifference and neglect, of urban and rural spaces, flawed government policy and social justice, of trauma and pain. For five years displaced residents of Pinhook, led by Debra Tarver, the unofficial chairperson of the town, have done everything possible to try to secure assistance in relocating their town outside the floodway. They have been seeking help through government agencies because, after all, it was the government that destroyed their town. After five long years, there is still no agreement. The case still sits in limbo. Though money has been allocated for relocation through a community block grant, and money has been spent to demolish what was left of the town’s remaining houses, the payout of that money depends upon the acquisition of a plot of land where residents can rebuild their town. Pinhook residents have been searching on their own for years for land that would meet the government’s requirements. They’ve found a number of possibilities, but for one reason or another, the deals have fallen through.

The people of Pinhook deserve better. Consider some of the facts of their case:

  • Residents of Pinhook were not involved in discussions on whether to breach the levee in April or May of 2011.
  • Pinhook residents were not officially or effectively notified of the decision to breach the levee. Residents report a confused process in which they were never sure if and when the breach would occur.
  • Most residents had less than forty-eight hours to evacuate their homes and relocate their property. Many had less than twenty-four before entry into Pinhook was restricted because of flooded roads.
  • Residents have received no money from the federal government to compensate them for the loss of their property. The Army Corp of Engineers acted according to existing law, and due to flowage easements supposedly secured by the government during the mid-twentieth century (not necessary from the people who owned the land at the time the levee was breached), the destruction of residents’ property was entirely legal.
  • FEMA has been negotiating the terms of a Community Block Grant with residents that could help pay for the relocation of Pinhook to a location outside of the floodway, but even if that negotiation is successful (and time is running out), they will still have to pay a significant portion of the costs of relocation and rebuilding themselves.

Five years is too long for this process to drag on. Five years is too long for the displaced residents of Pinhook to have their community members living in various towns across the Midwest. Five years is too long for them to have to wait to rebuild their homes and reestablish their community.

It is time for Pinhook to be rebuilt. It is time for government entities to pay to rebuild it. It is time for the long nightmare of the displaced residents of Pinhook to be over. It is time for them to go home.


—Dr. David “Todd” Lawrence

Associate Professor, University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, MN) & Friend of Pinhook


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