WOLF LAKE — Students in Jamie Nash-Mayberry’s government and history classes at Shawnee High School know what is at risk because of failing levees along the Big Muddy and Mississippi rivers. It is their school, family homes and belongings, and, in many cases, their jobs.

Nash-Mayberry began asking her students to share their knowledge with elected officials in 2010, and they are still writing letters because the levees still need attention. 

To help their state and federal legislators, especially those who are new to their offices, understand the issue, another group of students wrote letters asking for help and inviting elected officials to visit the school. 

For Shawnee seniors Abbey Livesay of Wolf Lake, Tyrik Davis of McClure and Nick Baltzell and Wyatt Hassebrock, both of Grand Tower, the project means a lot.

“With the election, we got a lot of new senators and representatives. The main idea was to inform them; a lot of people have no clue,” Baltzell said.

“We want them to see how bad our levees are and hope to get funding,” Livesay said.

“Around here, the levees are our life. It’s what we depend on,” Hassebrock said.

Livesay lives in Union County, just south of the Big Muddy River, right along the levee. She said her family is lucky to be on the side of the river that is not broken.

Davis moved to Southern Illinois from Peoria. He admitted he did not really know anything about levees until his family moved to Cairo, but his family has had to learn quickly. Flooding in 2016 threatened their home.

“A couple more inches and we would have been flooded. It was scary,” Davis said. “We were trying to think of where we could put our stuff if it happened.”

Water was on the fields and crops, but did not get into his home.

The frustration showed in their voices talking about their lives and the issues with the levees.

The levee on the north side of the Big Muddy River has a weak spot from a pipe that burst in June 2013. The levee held during the January 2016 flooding, and the project to repair the pipe and do other projects has stalled. Baltzell and Hassebrock said grass has grown up through the engines of a bobcat and bulldozer left along the levee when the project stalled.

They said it is now taller than the teens.

“We’ve had fundraiser after fundraiser. We’ve raised all we can. Where do we go next?” Hassebrock said.

“If this was their home, they would do anything they could to keep it,” Davis said.

The students also talked about poverty. At best, residents live paycheck to paycheck, but some are unemployed or received government subsidies. Most cannot afford to move, especially when the value of home and real estate are low because of the risk of flooding.

Complicating the problem is the unsatisfactory rating of the existing levees. The rating disqualifies residents for federal flood insurance. When it is available, it is extremely expensive.

Hassebrock’s family lives in a home that is almost paid off. He says they cannot afford to move, and they cannot get flood insurance.

The students say a sand-bagging machine would be useful. The machine makes sand bags more efficiently and quicker than making them by hand. Nash-Mayberry said Southern Illinois Community Foundation has offered to help purchase the machine, but that cannot happen until they have a place to store it and sand bags.

They would be happy to get some money for gas to mow the levees to cut down the number of animals burrowing into the levees.

“It’s almost like a never-ending battle,” Baltzell said. “Honestly, you’ve got to put it [flooding] in the back of your mind and go to work and school. We know it’s going to happen, we just don’t know when.”

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Marilyn Halstead is a reporter covering Herrin and Carterville, and is the food writer for The Southern.

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