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Memories come flooding back

By Doug Rich

FRONTLINE LEVEE—Anthony Ohmes, University of Missouri Extension Regional agronomy Specialist, sits next to the hole that was blown in the Mississippi River and Tributaries (MR&T) frontline levee on May 2. The levee was blown near Birds Point, Mo., to lower the flood stage on the Mississippi River. Breaching the levee flooded 130,000 acres in the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway. (Journal photo by Doug Rich.)

Morris Heitman, Mound City, Mo., was 6 years old the first time he experienced a flood along the Missouri River. He has vivid memories of his family leaving their home in a rowboat on Easter morning in 1952.

"It was a traumatic experience for a 6-year-old kid," Heitman said.

Missouri corn farmers on both sides of the state are busy cleaning up after the flood of 2011 in preparation for the 2012 planting season. Heitman has experienced floods as a producer and as a 35-year employee of the Farm Services Agency. As an FSA employee he helped administer flood recovery programs in 1984 and 1993.


"All floods are different," Heitman said. "Sometimes they are caused by rainfall in the immediate area and sometimes by snow melt and rainfall in the upper Missouri River Basin, which was the case last year. We did not have much rainfall right here during that whole period of flooding."

In 2011 Heitman had a 500-acre tract in northern Holt County and southern Atchison County that flooded after a breach in the Corning Levee district levee. Heitman said a person farming in the flood plain can either be in the area of hard current and devastating damage or he can be in an area of backwater.

"I was fortunate enough this year to be in an area of backwater," Heitman said. "We lost all of our crops but the infrastructure was not really damaged."

The flood in 1993 was earlier in the spring, did not last nearly as long as the 2011 flood, and the river crest was about the same as last year. On some of the land Heitman farmed in 1993 there were cottonwood trees 6 feet tall by October.

"They had sprouted and gotten that tall by late summer or early fall," Heitman said.

He had to moldboard plow all of that ground. This year he wanted to prevent that from happening again so just as soon as the fields were dry he worked them up to make sure nothing grew in late summer or early fall.

The difference this year was that the river was out of its banks for 16 weeks. Water was on the fields so long it killed all of the vegetation. Heitman said there was nothing green even down fence rows or around farm buildings.


Sand deposits are part of the aftermath of nearly every flood. The impact on future agricultural production depends on the depth of those deposits. Where there are sand and silt deposits it can be tough simply because of the volume in cubic yards. Heitman said a foot of sand over an entire acre is 1,576 cubic yards.

"If sand deposits are just an inch deep over the field, it can be worked into the soil and over time you would not even know it was there," Heitman said. "But those thicker deposits are tremendously expensive to move."

On the eastern side of the state 130,000 acres of farm ground was flooded when the U.S. Corps of Engineers breached the frontline levee of the Mississippi River and Tributaries levee near Birds Point. Anthony Ohmes, University of Missouri regional agronomy specialist, said many farmers in his area who had sand deposits and minor washouts had land-leveling companies come in and repair the damage last summer.

"As far as the sand deposits go a lot of those have been removed and they will work the rest of the it in," Ohmes said. "There are some deeper cuts, which are a very small percentage of the 130,000 acres that was flooded, and I don't know what they will do with those acres."

Ohmes said there was on large sand deposit near Big Oak in Mississippi County, Mo., and that sand was being used to fill in the breach area.

Recovery after the intentional breach of the levee near Birds Point has been amazing. The levee was breached in May and farmers in Mississippi County were back on their land by June 28 in most cases. Ohmes said a lot of soybeans were planted the first week of July. Wheat was planted last fall and farmers are preparing to plant corn and soybean this spring.

"Except for a small area that was totally ruined we were probably 90 percent planted last summer," Ohmes said.

The breach at Birds Point is nearly filled. Ohmes said the weather was favorable all summer and fall until it got wet in December. The U.S. Corps of Engineers was committed, Ohmes said, and they were close to reaching their target level for the levee in November.

"It is sure better than it looked back in May and June," Ohmes said.


Farmers and landowners on both sides of the state were concerned about adequate funding for repairs to the damaged levee system. In December the U.S. Corps of Engineers announced it would receive significantly more funding for repairs under the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act signed by President Obama. The U.S. Corps of Engineers received $1.7 billion of the $48.6 billion appropriated for nationwide disaster relief.

"We have money flowing and the weather has been warm and dry so that has been an advantage," Brig. Gen. John McMahon, Northwest Division Commander, said. "We expect a majority of qualified repairs to levees and our operating projects will be funded."

McMahon said the amount of repairs completed is dependent on the weather and on how quickly each site is ready for work to begin. Before repairs can begin at a specific site the Corps must acquire access, get money in place, complete designs, and let the contracts. All of those steps have to occur to get dirt flying at a particular site.

"We are not going to have the same amount of protection at the start of the 2012 runoff season that we had at the start of 2011," McMahon said. "The extent to which we will be challenged by the weather is the big unknown. If we have a mild year and a dry year that will be very conducive to getting repairs made. But in the short term we will remain vulnerable dependent on how much we get done before March 1."

According to the Corps of Engineers eligible levee repairs pertain to those deemed economically justifiable, with $15,000 or more in damages sustained in the recent flood event and are active in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers PL 84-99 Rehabilitation and Inspection Program at the time of the flood event.

Heitman said if the river does not get any higher than it is right now then everything is adequately protected. He just hopes that the river level stays down so he and his neighbors can get repairs done. Heitman does not want his memories of flooding along the Missouri River to include another flood in 2012.

Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304 or by e-mail at


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