GRAND TOWER -- For most residents of Jackson County, a major flood isn't a big worry. But for the small town of Grand Tower, living with the constant threat of a possible levee break and major flood destruction is just a normal part of life.
“It’s called life on the river,” said Mayor Mike Ellet, Sr.
Looking for change
Ellet has lived in Grand Tower his entire life. The mayor since 2009, he said the issue of levee finance and repair has existed for as long as he can remember.
“It has always been the big thing here,” Ellet said. “They will tell you one thing and do something else.
“Unless we see them working on it, and working on it right, that’s when we’ll believe them.”
Ellet and his wife of 32 years, Joyce, would lose both their jobs and their home if there was to be any major flooding because of a levee break.
“It’s not so much that I worry for myself, but I have children and grandchildren that live here,” Joyce said. “I think about them. I know it probably looks like we are a sinking ship and should just throw in the towel and quit, but that’s not going to happen.”
With a population of a little more than 600 people, Ellet said Grand Tower would not be able to come up with the money needed for something he believes the government should have to pay for.
“They’ve bought big, fancy boats and they ride up and down the river, they’ve got airplanes that fly over it,” he said. “Get down here where it’s at. Get down in the ditch and see what really needs to be done.”
Ellet also said railroad businesses should have to help with some of the finances, but as of yet, they have not.
“They haven’t put up one penny to fix these levees, but they're sending millions of cars up and down those tracks every day,” he said. “The government built these things and they charge us all these taxes on the farm ground. The railroad pays taxes, too. Why can’t they help?”
The time is now
Shelley McMahan agrees fixing the levee should be considered a higher priority. As co-owner of Cardinal Corner, Grand Tower’s only gas station and one of the town’s only businesses, McMahan said it is important to quit putting off levee repairs.
“This is the only store in town,” McMahan said. “It’s the only place people can come to without having to drive to Murphysboro or Anna or Cape or Carbondale.”
She said if anything were to happen to her business, it would be extremely difficult -- if not impossible -- to rebuild. Financially, most of the businesses and people would have difficulty recovering.
“Some kind of big break or flood would devastate this area,” McMahan said. "We don’t have the support we need, but our homes are just as important as anybody else’s. Our lives are as important as anybody else’s.”
Peggy Camp, pastor of Lighthouse Christian Assembly in Grand Tower, has had to worry about the levee her whole life. She's learned to live with the possibility of something happening on a daily basis, she said.
“It’s a real threat and a genuine everyday thing,” Camp said. “It seems we have just grown accustomed to learn the seasons of when the water is going to rise up and when it is going to go down.”
She said the levee issue has impacted the community in a negative way, and has even noticed a decrease in population.
“There has been a gradual decrease in people living here because of the levee issue,” Camp said. “Many people left and never came back after the flood of 1993.”
Jackson County Board member Emily Burke said repairing the levees is not only a part of preserving Jackson County heritage, but also part of the county’s duty to make sure it takes care of its 45 miles of land that border the Mississippi River.
“I think this is one time when we need to make good on something we pledged to do a long time ago,” Burke said. “I just think the process in getting this done has been so complicated.”
A lifelong resident and the commissioner of the Grand Tower Levee District, Roger Cavness said the town has been waiting on specific funding since a levee pipe collapsed more than two years ago. However, he's confident funding will soon be available to the community.
“Once the meeting happens at the end of the month, I am sure we will get the money,” Cavness said. “The governor has upgraded the time and we have five years remaining. There is no reason why we shouldn’t get the money.”
The Jackson County Board is scheduled to vote on the issue Feb. 24. If is passes, it would allow the county to access $1.7 million in bonds to begin repairs.
Ellet is hopeful that after the board meeting, the process will pick up speed and repairs could begin as early as this spring. He's glad the issue is finally getting the attention it deserves.
“No one ever gets excited until that river gets real high,” he said. “Then you will see all kinds of news cameras and it will be in all the papers. And then here they come.”
Money or no money, Camp has never had plans to leave Grand Tower.
“When you live down here in the bottoms, as we call it, there is a stability inside of us that I see over and over again,” Camp said. “The people here come together. They have to pull together for their survival and you can’t beat us down. We just keep standing.”