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Sunday, Apr. 20, 2014

Officials, residents celebrate milestone

Monday, October 13, 2003

NEW MADRID - Jim Robinson of Pinhook remembers moving to the New Madrid Floodway from Tennessee in 1942 with his family at age nine in a time so far removed it might as well be another world.

He remembers how people of color were allowed to go into town for supplies provided they left before sunset.

While gaps in racial equality have narrowed over the last 60 years, Robinson's children have continued to live with one hole that has brought misery to his family and friends countless times: the gap between the Frontline and Setback levees.

"I remember when I was 16 and the water was coming," he said. "We had to move every time the water came up and shovel mud every time it went down."

With requirements for compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act finally met, plans are now in place for that hole to be closed, allowing Robinson's family in Pinhook to live free from the near-constant threat of floods and mud.

"I thank God that I have lived long enough to see this day come and I pray I will live long enough to see them put some mud in that hole," he said.

Well over 200 area residents were present along with state and federal officials for the milestone ceremony celebrating victory over what residents hope will be the final obstacle to the St. John's Bayou and New Madrid Floodway Project.

"When two-thirds of your county floods, a lot of people care," said Mississippi County resident Martha Ellen Black. "It's a big day - a really big day."

Plans for closing the 1,500-foot gap in the levees and building a pumping station there go back to 1914, and Congress authorized its closure in 1954.

"We have been patient, we have waited and today is our day of celebration," said Furg Hunter, secretary for the St. John Levee and Drainage District, during his welcoming remarks.

Hunter listed hardships endured by this region due to the gap from rainwater flooding in Sikeston to school buses full of children being held up due to backwater flooding.

"We are here to mark a milestone in the history of a project," said Lynn Bock, attorney for the St. John Levee and Drainage District, during his historic overview of the project.

Bock praised the perseverance of those working to close the gap over the last 60 years, noting that while people commonly cite events going back to the early 1960s, the idea for the project predates the flood of 1927 and the Flood Control Act that followed.

In 1986 the project was finally authorized but with the requirement for a 30-percent local cost share, Bock said. When the region was unable to come up its share of $20 million, the project was again put on hold.

Most recently, the project's advocates had struggled to meet environmental concerns since 1997, which were finally resolved in August with the Water Quality Certification being issued by the State of Missouri.

The project will mean "new opportunities and significant economic growth" for the region, Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell said during his comments. "This project is a foundation."

Col. Jack Scherer, district engineer for the Memphis District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the Corps is ready to refine and complete the project's design and plans to start next summer, addressing the project's purpose "in an environmentally sound way."

Brig. Gen. Don Riley, division engineer for the Mississippi Valley Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said that while his was a small part, he is proud to represent the Corps and predicted the project will bring area residents "the predictability and confidence to go on with your lives."

Les Brownlee, the 27th undersecretary and acting secretary of the U.S. Army, said that it was after being "impressed and moved" by one of Robinson's speeches that he asked to be fully briefed on the project.

Brownlee said the project has passed all the tests and has proved its worth, going beyond just mitigating the environmental effect on the surrounding area so that it will actually make improvements for the environment.

Commenting on his delay due to weather conditions, Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond noted that "nothing with the St. John's Bayou is ever easy."

After years of this area "being flooded by as much bureaucratic delay as river water," Bond said it is time to "resolve matters, not just study them."

Bond credited Brownlee with being a "leading force" in the completion of the plan. Both state and federal legislators have "pushed and shoved and cursed - yes, cursed" to get the project moved forward, Bond said. "It just took us awhile to get others to understand."

Bond said he believes the late Rep. Bill Emerson was looking down proudly on the celebration, adding that "all things are possible for those who believe."

Three federal officials - Bill Emerson, Bond and Rep. Jo Ann Emerson - stood against the "forces of obstruction," according to Sen. Jim Talent. "We owe them a great debt of thanks."

"It's amazing that we're here today and I still can't believe it," said Emerson, adding that while it is the culmination of decades of work, it is also just the beginning.

The project will be "good both for people and the environment," she said.

Several officials credited Liz Anderson of the Enterprise Courier in Charleston as being instrumental in providing factual information in her articles as opposed to Washington Post writers who maligned the project from thousands of miles away with no regard for the lives and homes of residents affected by flooding.

After signing a project cooperation agreement amendment, officials traveled to Big Oak Tree State Park for a catfish luncheon and an "acorn planting."