Residents of a tiny village in Missouri’s Bootheel hope this will be the last Christmas they spend waiting for a federal buyout of their homes that were destroyed in May 2011 when the Army Corps of Engineers blew up a levee to alleviate flooding along the Mississippi River.
The buyout is in a preliminary phase, more than 2 1/2 years after the Corps made the controversial decision to activate the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway for the first time in 74 years to ease flooding in Cairo, Ill., and other towns along the river. The torrent of floodwater unleashed by the explosion destroyed crops and about 200 homes as it swept through the 130,000-acre spillway.
About 30 residents lived in Pinhook, the only incorporated community located in the floodway. The Mississippi County village was founded by African-American farmers before World War II.
“We’re still holding on to the fact that some day we’ll have our village back and our homes. I know it’s a struggle. I know it’s been tough for my mom and my sisters and family members,’’ said Mayor Debra Tarver who has led efforts to rebuild the community on land outside the floodway.
Though progress has been slow, the project is finally moving ahead, said Stephen Duke, executive director of the Bootheel Regional Planning and Economic Development Commission, which is serving as the administrator. An environmental review has been completed, and property appraisal and title reviews are under way. Once the preliminary steps are complete, buyout offers can be made to residents.
The buyout, which is voluntary, includes 17 residential properties and two public buildings. The cost is estimated at $1.3 million, 75 percent of which would be covered by federal funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). A Community Development Block Grant would cover the remaining 25 percent.
Duke hopes that buyout offers can begin in spring. The properties of owners who accept the buyout will be deeded to the village. Flood-wrecked homes and structures will be demolished. The land will be restricted to agriculture or gardens; no structures can be rebuilt. Duke said the village would be responsible for the maintenance of the land, though a government agency, such as the Missouri Conservation Commission, could agree to take it over.
The long wait has been an ordeal for the village, Duke said.
“They woke up one morning and had a home. And they woke up the next morning and they didn’t. And they still don’t. That’s the sad part about it,’’ he said.
Duke noted that the buyout process is slow because it must meet the regulations of the agencies involved -- and that takes time.
“It’s kind of like Jell-O,’’ he said. “It sits in the refrigerator for a good while, and you don’t think anything’s happening. All of a sudden you open the door and it’s Jell-O. It doesn’t look like anything’s going on until it happens.’’
The residents of Pinhook were good neighbors who took care of their homes and one another, Tarver told the St. Louis Beacon last spring. Residents used to gather together every Sunday at the Union Baptist Church, which stood at the entrance to the village. Most of the displaced villagers are scattered throughout nearby Bootheel towns as they await resolution.
Tarver said the residents still want to rebuild their community, and they are looking for a site of about 40-acres to purchase. She tries to focus on the future – not the Corps’ decision to blow the levee.
“We’ve just got to keep our heads up and keep our prayers going,’’ she said. “We just want back what we had. Let us go back to living like we were. We weren’t bothering anybody.’’
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