OLIVE BRANCH — It’s a quiet calamity.
Since mid-February, about 25,000 to 30,000 acres of Alexander County have been inundated with flood waters pouring through the breach in the Len Small Levee on the Mississippi River. The flooding makes life difficult for the few remaining residents of the area, many sold their homes after the 2016 flood that created the breach in the levee.
Joey Thurston, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources site superintendent at Horseshoe Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area, much of which is underwater, said he and his staff have been boating to high areas within the park to complete needed maintenance work.
The park has largely been closed to the public since mid-February. But, for Thurston, the flooding is more than an inconvenience. Drone photos taken by Thurston’s staff earlier this week showed the amount of silt and mud flowing through the lake.
“I can’t see how this lake, I don’t see how we can keep — you see the sediment that’s coming in,” Thurston said. “We in IDNR have to become part of the conversation. We’re the largest landowner, 12,000 acres affected by it. We have to join in on the conversation, we have to be with the county, the local leaders to be able to make our case, this is about all of us, everybody, our natural resources.”
Given ideal situations, including no more rain, Thurston estimates it would take at least 30 days for the flood waters to disappear. Then, it will take considerable time to get the park reopened.
“It’s going to have get dry enough for us to clean debris up,” he said. “We don’t know, we’re going to have a lot of mud. Who knows what we’re going to have when it goes down.”
In addition to siltation, he is concerned about the effect the flooding will have on Horseshoe Lake’s trademark cypress and Tupelo trees.
There are also concerns as to what the frequent flooding is doing to the Horseshoe Lake fishery. Thurston said fisheries biologists are concerned game fish are following the current out of the flooded lake.
Nestled between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, Horseshoe Lake and the southern tip of Alexander County have always been susceptible to flooding. However, the breach in the Len Small Levee changed the equation dramatically.
Prior to the breach, the Mississippi River had to reach 48.5 feet at Cape Girardeau for the river to top the levee. Now, water pours from the three-quarter-mile breach when the river reaches 33-35 feet.
“You see that every single year, probably multiple times per year,” said Jeff Denny, the Alexander County engineer.
The levee breach creates other more nefarious issues. Prior to 2016, flood damage was created simply by water inundating property. Now, the breach forces the water out of the Mississippi channel with a force that washed away homes in 2016 and is capable of peeling surfaces off roadways.
And, as of now, there are no concrete plans, or timetable, to repair the levee.
“Now, it’s just like a total reset. Every time the water flows through there like that, where the sand was, that’s different,” Denny said. “The ground where you want to rebuild the levee, it could be 10-foot lower. You’re going to have to re-evaluate.
“We have plans and we have permits to build it, but what we thought we are going to build. That’s what we ran into before, we could afford it, but we had the last go-round and we might still be able to swing it, but the project got worse and bigger.”
Some Alexander County residents are still living in the area, their homes islands of land protruding from the flood waters. The Miller City Blacktop, the major roadway serving the region, is covered with water.
The remaining residents use boats to take them to the dry areas where they can reach their vehicles.
A tour of the area earlier this week showed the river has partially torn away a significant portion of the levee south of the breach. And, water roiling through the breach has dug deep trenches in the land that once covered with corn and soybeans.
Thurston is advocating for a stopgap measure that would protect the park, which is right in line with the levee breach.
“We need to do something to protect it right now, or there just isn’t going to be any (park), to slow the current down,” Thurston said. “This just keeps getting larger and larger.
“The thing about it is, we see 100 percent of what comes through that gap at the breach. We’re going to see it. That water is ours. It’s coming. The Mississippi is straight at us.”
Unfortunately, the flooding has been occurring more often, which complicates efforts to rebuild the levee.
“Basically, the only hope you have, you hope June 1 you have a low river where you can start,” Denny said. “Typically then, you should have the whole summer, the fall is fairly dry, until Thanksgiving. That gives you a window you could do that. We haven’t been having that. All last fall the river was up, you couldn’t even think about it.”
Funding will also be a problem. Currently, Alexander County does not qualify for disaster assistance.
“We don’t have that many resources to begin with,” Denny said. “We weren’t even declared a state disaster area. You have to be declared a state disaster area to become a federal. We’re not getting any help. With our state you have to have enough damage based on the per capita of your state.
“In 2016 I had like $3.5 million in road damage that FEMA acknowledged, but for the state you have to have, the county threshold, we exceeded 100 times. The state threshold, we didn’t meet. It’s an unfortunate thing. If that was Interstate 57 running through there, you wipe out a half-mile of it, that’s a $10 million cost vs. my county road.”
Given the expanding flooding cycles, the changing nature of repairs to the levee and uncertain funding, the outlook for relief is as murky as the water flowing through the levee breach.
“How long can we keep doing this?” Thurston said. “If it was a one-time deal, this is something that is going on steadily and it’s going to keep going on. We’ve adapted. We know how to get in and out and take care of our site. But, how long can we keep doing it?”
“How long can we keep rebuilding the same roads every year?” Denny asked.
Those are all important questions with no answers.