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Missouri Community Wants to Rebuild After ’11 Flooding

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COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers destroyed the town of Pinhook when it blasted the Birds Point levee in 2011, knowingly sending the Mississippi River gushing into homes there. But it did not destroy the community.

The residents, about 40 mostly black females, plan to re-create their former lifestyle elsewhere, said Debra Tarver, a lifelong resident who has become a sort of community spokeswoman. An out-of-state couple has offered to sell them property to rebuild, although negotiations are pending and Tarver could not provide details.

All they need now is for the federal or state government to provide some financial help. To date, they’ve received nothing — no compensation for their ruined homes and farmland and no assistance from the emergency agencies that dole out funds to communities affected by hurricanes, tornadoes and other disasters.

Tarver joined University of Missouri Curators Professor Elaine Lawless at the State Historical Society of Missouri in Columbia earlier this month to share information about the flood. Lawless and Todd Lawrence, an MU alumnus and associate English professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, have spent the past year researching the community and documenting residents’ stories.

The May 2, 2011, decision to operate the New Madrid Floodway was an effort to relieve water levels and stave off potential flooding downstream, namely in Cairo, Ill. A tornado in Joplin 20 days later diverted what little public attention had been directed at Pinhook. Lawless and Lawrence are trying to spark more interest in what happened to the community. In addition to papers and film clips, they started a blog.

In her description, Lawless portrayed Pinhook as a neighborhood of relatives and friends so tight-knit that homeowners left their doors unlocked so neighbors could come and go as they pleased. Strangers were welcome, too.

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“Pinhook has always been a place, we pick up anybody who comes along,” Tarver said. “If you’re hungry, we’ll feed you. If you need clothes, we’ll find something to fit you.”

Tarver’s grandfather and father settled the area of Pinhook in the 1940s, after the corps had already negotiated a spillway with landowners in the 1930s. Former residents often are asked why they settled in the flood zone, Tarver said, but they didn’t have a choice: In the 1940s, swampland was the only property being sold to black people. The Tarver family spent decades clearing the land to make it suitable for farming.

The flood did not destroy the town’s Baptist church, but it was later destroyed in an arson fire. Other homes also burned, but Tarver said the church fire occurred not long after she publicly suggested it be used as a tourism center for anyone wanting to learn more about the floodway.

Residents aren’t deterred, Tarver said. They’re determined to re-create their community elsewhere. In addition to homes, the new town will include the church, Tarver said. Community members “are adamant about that.”

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