This drone photograph shows the extent of Mississippi River flooding in Alexander County

You have to see it to believe it.

Nearly one-fifth of Alexander County has been inundated by Mississippi River floodwaters since mid-February. Yet, little is said about the chronic flooding because relatively few people are affected. No industries or serious infrastructure are threatened by the flood.

Many of the homeowners in the area sold their homes following the 2016 “New Year’s Flood” caused by a massive breach of the Len Small Levee. While water currently covers about 30,000 acres, most of the acreage is farmland located south of Olive Branch.

There are a few homeowners living on small islands throughout the region. They use boats to get to and from their land. But, little or nothing is being done to assist them.

Fact is, at the current time, it appears little can be done.

Prior to the levee breach, the Mississippi River had to top 48.5 feet at Cape Girardeau to put the land in danger. With the three-quarter mile gap in the levee, water begins pouring through the breach at about 33 feet.

In recent years, that’s a pretty good bet to happen at least once or twice a year.

As tempting as it is to blame politicians and government agencies for the inaction, that’s not really fair. As Jeff Denny, county engineer in Alexander County explained, levee repairs can only be made when the river is low for an extended period of time.

That hasn’t happened recently. As noted earlier, much of the county has been underwater since mid-February. With the drenching rains that struck the Midwest this weekend, those waters aren’t likely to recede anytime in the near future.

Once upon a time plans were on the table to repair the levee breech, but that was three or four floods ago.

The roiling floodwaters have expanded their damage since then, scouring more dirt away from the levee.

And, the floodwaters have become more insidious since the levee gave way in 2016.

These aren’t passive backups from water topping a levee. The water now is forced through the breach with a vengeance, powerful enough to carry away homes and pull pavement off roadways. The floodwaters deposited tons of sand on Alexander County farmland.

When the water recedes, large portions of the county are covered in several feet of sand. And, no one is quite sure what the floodwaters are doing to Horseshoe Lake and its trademark cypress and Tupelo trees. Aerial photographs graphically illustrate the siltation occurring.

The flooding has become a slow-motion natural disaster occurring right under our noses. There are just so many questions that appear to have no answers.

Will Horseshoe Lake’s cypress and Tupelo survive? Will the shallow lake become nothing more than a wetland? Will the Mississippi change course as many are worried it might do? Will any of the flooded land be tillable again? Will state and federal agencies be willing to appropriate money to repair the levee? Will and state or federal government simply buy up the property to turn the area into a wildlife refuge? What would taking the land off the tax rolls do to an already cash-strapped Alexander County?

Worst of all, the people of Alexander County will be waiting months, likely years, for answers.

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LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.


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