During a recent interview with Sam Zumwalt, a producer whose family has farmed the Mississippi River bottoms for generations, he asked me if I’d ever seen a levee break. Certainly a rhetorical question, and he acknowledged so, as few people outside a levee district probably have seen such a thing actually happen. But what he described, and what I saw in person, was striking.
I drove down to the Meyer, Ill., area last week as part of my February cover story on the steps farmers in that area are taking to recover from the flooding of 2008. Meyer was the site of the main levee break on the Mississippi, which occurred within a few hundred feet of the Ursa Farmers Coop on June 17. Remember those photos you saw of an elevator under water, perhaps with $7 corn flowing out of a 700,000-bushel bin? That was this elevator.
The land, as we drove across the bottoms from Ursa to Meyer, was surreal. Even after more than seven months, the ground had sort of a wasteland look to it. No plant material remained, after some 30,000 acres sat underwater from June until October, when the Corps completed levee repairs.
Zumwalt described that when a levee breaks, the land in the water’s immediate path is washed away. A 40-acre field will be dropped 15 feet, never to be farmed again. Dianne Barnett, farm manager for Adwell Corp., motioned to an area just south of the newly rebuilt levee. Now covered in trees and wetlands and rocks, that 40-acre field was highly productive farmland before 1993, when the levee broke directly to the west of it.
Further from the levee break, the soil is intact but covered with sandy sediment. Uprooted trees still dot the landscape. That day, a farmer worked with an excavator, piling and burning trees. Coop Manager Jerry Jenkins reports that farmer has spent hundreds of hours clearing debris from his acreage.
Down the road, machine sheds stand with ragged metal siding, some ripped away, some dangling in the breeze. Zumwalt’s son, Joe, explained that water was up to the rafters on most of them. After the wood soaks up water for so long, nails give way. And in water that’s 25 feet deep, waves rip away the sheet metal – and wash ledges in the rest of the levees.
And on that blustery January day, dust flew up from under our tires as if it were August. Joe says the same thing happened in ’94. The muddy Mississippi leaves behind a lot, and he says it’ll be a dusty year, period.
“Even in a cabbed tractor, you’ll get so dusty, you have to run home and take a shower at lunch,” he adds.
Below is a gallery of images I came across on this trip. It's stunning.
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The levee broke just under this service bridge, between two pillars. Rushing water left a gorge 30-feet deep and 300-feet wide.
This corn crib on Zumwalt's farm has survived five floods.