Levee breach dooms tiny African-American community

PINHOOK, Mo. (AP) — A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decision to blow up the levee at Birds Point in eastern Missouri last month appears to have sealed the fate of a tiny community comprised primarily of African-Americans.

The Southeast Missourian reported that Pinhook, which is about 10 miles from East Prairie, took a big hit when water from the bloated Mississippi River flowed through the town of about 30 residents. At one point in the 1960s, the village was home to more than 250 people. Today, nobody lives there and there's not much chance of anyone moving back.

"It's never going to recover," said George Williams, who has lived in the town for nearly six decades. "It won't. It's over with."

The corps blew holes in the levee in early May to relieve pressure on communities upriver that were being threatened by floodwaters. When residents of Pinhook heard of plans to breach the levee, the collection of friends, family and relatives who lived there headed for higher ground.

The residents scattered, renting apartments in Sikeston and moving in with friends in East Prairie, while some moved even farther away. Many thought they would be able to return after the water receded, but inspections have shown that might not be possible.

Mayor Debra Tarver said residents have asked the government to relocate them, as one unit, to another area in Mississippi County. The people want to stay together, and they believe that since the government destroyed their homes by blowing up the levee, the government should pay to relocate them away from an area that could be flooded again whenever the corps chooses.

Tarver said residents are tired of living in constant fear of water disrupting their otherwise peaceful lives.

But Mo. Rep. Steve Hodges, an East Prairie Democrat, doesn't think the government will go along with the idea.

Hodges said he counts the people of Pinhook among some of his closest friends. He played high school football with them in the 1960s and even remembered a time when the team refused to eat at a restaurant that refused to let its black players inside.

Hodges said the government needs to do something, but he doesn't think moving all of the residents to a different location will be feasible.

"In my opinion, I don't think that will happen," he said. "I don't know where the money would come from. I think it would be a very nice gesture, but I think it would set some kind of really rare precedent. It is probably the government's responsibility to some extent. But that? I don't see it."

Hodges said he expect the residents will get some sort of reimbursement from either FEMA or the corps, and they'll be on their own to carry on their lives elsewhere.

"It's sad," he said. "That was such a great community. But this is a thing that's happened and it's probably going to be lost in time. It's a shame."

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