Illinois News

Area farmers focus on 'good memories' of flood

Brent Hoerr fills his grain truck Friday with last years corn to take to the elevator in Canton, Mo. Hoerr lives on the bluff South of Taylor, Mo. but farms land that was flooded in 1993.. | H-W Photo/Michael Kipley
Michael Kipley 1|
By Herald-Whig
Posted: May. 19, 2018 10:05 pm

HULL, Ill. -- Kevin Keithly's corn and soybean crops look good -- maybe as good as they've ever looked in his 41 years of farming in the Mississippi River bottoms.

"The year of the flood, things looked this good," Keithly said. "'93 would have been a very good year."

Then the rains came, and farmers left their fields to fight what turned out to be a merciless foe claiming not only their crops but their homes and communities as rising water topped and burst levees meant to hold it back.

Keithly spent weeks monitoring day and night in Reach One of the Sny Island Levee Drainage District -- until the day the levee "erupted," putting an end to this battle between man and nature.

"When I'd taken care of the responsibilities I had on the levee and my family was completely moved out, I actually came to where some of my farm ground was," he said. "I walked into it, met the waters coming across the crops. In my mind, I can still envision the sound of that water coming down the corn rows, kind of a gurgling sound. It was something that not many people probably experienced. It was a quiet moment."

It was a heartbreaking moment.

As much as 18 feet of water eventually covered Keithly's fields near Hull, destroying the crops and his home.

"You never forget it, but the wounds kind of heal," he said.

Pike County Farm Bureau Executive Director Blake Roderick said farmers and residents of flood-ravaged communities still deal with "post flood stress disorder," a tongue-in-cheek term for a real condition.

"When rain comes at a certain time, a certain way, they think about the flood. This is a strong memory that they have. It hasn't worked itself out all the way yet. People are strong, resilient, but it's there. It's kind of like that nerve that twinges every now and then when you least expect it," Roderick said.

"I think about it every year when I plant," Palmyra, Mo., farmer Brent Hoerr said. "It is one of the biggest factors of risk that is still out there that seems to not have the attention it needs to alleviate some of the risk."

But worries about getting timely rains, moderate temperatures and nonthreatening storms often overshadow the threat of flooding to producing the best crops possible.

Dual battle

Back in 1993, snowmelt and rain to the north swelled rivers as early as March. River levels receded but surged again with heavy rains to the north in June, "when the real flood fight started," Roderick said. "It wasn't just on the Mississippi River. We were fighting a dual battle on the Illinois River in Pike and Scott counties. The Illinois River was backing up. It had nowhere to go on the Mississippi."

An estimated 3 million sandbags filled by volunteers in Pittsfield went to shore up levees to the east and west being patrolled around the clock by many in the farm community.

Warsaw farmer Sam Zumwalt battled the floodwaters that eventually claimed his crops.

"We couldn't have had a better crop out there in the river bottom. We lost it all," Zumwalt said.

Keithly and his family moved to Hannibal, Mo., where they still live a quarter century later, but he continues to farm the same land.

Hoerr estimates that "probably 98 or 99 percent" of the land farmed back in 1993 that was flooded is still being farmed.

Zumwalt said the area of a levee break south of the Meyer elevator remains "pretty much" a wetland. "You've got 40 acres of sand, gravel and trees now. The rest of it is all back," he said.

"We didn't have a lot of damage to the land itself," Keithly said. "There was some trash. You could go through fields and pick up refuge from upriver. I found some old sales records from a foundry in Keokuk, Iowa, out in the field, but as far as any permanent damage to the land itself, no."

But there were many other losses.

"They not only lost their crop, but they also lost their buildings, their grain bins," Roderick said. "They pretty much got their grain out, their equipment out, but you can't move the buildings. You can't move the house. Those things were flooded."

Pike County had 44,000 acres affected by floodwaters -- the most, Roderick said, of any single levee district.

Changing ?perspective

The floods, both '73 and '93, changed the perspective of many living and farming near the rivers.

"When something's bigger than you, you tend to respect the power a flood has. It also reminds us that the best plans sometimes aren't enough," Hoerr said. "You look a lot more before you react and spout off opinions. I've learned over the years to listen more and talk less."

Hoerr made other changes, living on the bluff instead of in the bottoms but still farming the rich river bottom.

"I'm paying more attention to how I do things," he said. "We're responsible for what we do and how we do it on our farms. I'm learning how to raise crops with a whole lot less nitrogen and (to use) cover crops. I'm doing things a whole lot different than I did 25 years ago."

It's time, technology and science -- not the capricious river -- that changed how farmers farm and the look of their land.

Keithly said, "The place now has a modern machine shed, modern grain storage. It looks nothing like it did pre-'93. A lot of this improvement I made would have happened even without the disaster. The flood kind of spearheaded it to happen a little bit quicker."

‘Unsung heroes'

The 1993 flood challenged area farmers, but for many, it wasn't their first encounter with rising waters.

"We'd been through this before in the '70s," said Keithly, who was 39 when the flood hit. "Some of the fellows around my age had some experience in the background in '73. We just kind of met this. It's our turn. It's up to us to make this work. We did the best we could."

He praised the "unsung heroes" across the region -- those helping provide food, supplies, sandbags and labor -- to support the flood fight.

"The people in the background kept us where we could keep going," Keithly said.

"The amazing thing is that these were people who during the day or at night are moving themselves out of their houses. They're taking care of their own families, literally moving themselves out of harm's way, loading up their homes, their memories and putting them in the back of semitrailers in case the levee broke," Roderick said.

Cut off from his home, Hoerr would try to get a few hours of sleep at the home of his aunt, Barb Plank, who died in 2016.

"I'd walk in. She'd have something for me to eat. She'd have my pants and shirt washed and laying there when I woke up," Hoerr said.

"People jumped in and did heroic things they didn't even think about. It was truly amazing, seeing just the giving and the selflessness of people doing things in a normal situation any sane person wouldn't do," Hoerr said. "It's good when you think back to those times. The losses have long been forgotten. The things that do endure are the good memories of the people."

Keithly remembers a couple from Springfield who arrived at the levee early one Sunday morning wanting to see where the sandbags they'd filled had gone. They scaled the levee, awestruck at the water lapping within 6 inches of the top.

"They looked at each other, looked at the river, looked at me and said we had no idea what you're facing," he said.

Other times, a simple prayer had the most impact.

Hoerr and others fighting the flood were struggling to get straw to the levee. They needed a skid with tracks to haul bales, and in a story his wife, Charlotte, often tells, she and their children sat down and prayed for help. Minutes later, a cousin from central Illinois called offering to help. The next morning, the cousin had two pieces of equipment and drivers to run them ready to work.

"When your kids can say a prayer and see it answered in 10 minutes, that's a powerful lesson they'll never forget," Hoerr said.

"It was not all bad," Keithly said.

"There were times of a night when it was quiet. I would be looking across the river, and the moon would be shimmering on it. It was tranquil on those rare quiet nights," he said. "I wouldn't want to do it again, and I most certainly wouldn't wish it on anybody."

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