REDUCED to basics, what Emerald Loida and the United States Army Corps of Engineers have done is stop the Mississippi River by letting water leak in the back door while keeping it from bursting through the front door.
To some the tactic is a straight Mississippi gamble; to others, it is a tense, watery balancing act in this small town south of St. Louis.
In the final analysis, it's a race against time and rising water.
About three weeks ago, as the flooding started to worsen, Mr. Loida, a third generation farmer who is president of Levee District II here, decided with his levee board to let flood waters leak into a vast, 7,500-acre farmland area known as "The Big Field."
In simple terms, a 10-mile-long levee, stretching diagonally away from the southeast end of Ste. Genevieve, and protecting The Big Field, also protects St. Mary, a small town nine miles down river. In addition, all the homes along St. Mary Road facing the field are protected.
"If the levee broke," Loida said, "a wall of water would cross The Big Field, flood the houses, and head down river to St. Mary. So, we let the water come in the far end of the levee to slowly flood the field and try to equalize the pressure of water on both sides of the levee so it won't burst."
There is also a low berm in front of St. Mary Road that would offer little protection in this record flood if The Big Field suddenly was completely flooded.
The end result? "We have sacrificed the farmland to save the levee, the town, and the homes," Loida said.
A spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers said, "This kind of back-flooding is not unusual, but it's definitely risky if the rains persist."
Ste. Genevieve is a small town founded in 1735 by French Creole farmers and fur traders. Many original homes are still standing. The downtown has been designated as historic by The National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Volunteers, townspeople, and the National Guard have built and maintained an emergency levee that zigzags through town. While other towns have lost the battle against rising waters, Ste. Genevieve has tenaciously held back the Mississippi for almost a month.
But over the last few days, as flood waters appeared to have crested at 47 feet, then receded and risen again, Loida's optimism has flagged.
"We may have reached the point where we'll get shot down," he said of the exhausting effort to maintain the balancing act with the levee and The Big Field.
The Army Corps of Engineers on several occasions, at Loida's request, authorized more rocks and gravel to be applied to the levee. A barge and a crane have dumped nearly 250,000 tons of rocks along the levee in the last week. "I'm not sure how all this is going to be paid for," Loida said. "Nobody knows now."
Fighting floods is not new in Ste. Genevieve. In 1967, farmers and volunteers working around the clock for seven days saved 3,500 acres with a makeshift levee. And in l973, when the river remained at flood stage for 90 days, the levee was crested in several places despite efforts to hold it back.
After the 1967 flood farmers reinforced the levee. But in l987 the levee district borrowed about $200,000 to build a permanent levee and raise the level of protection. The members of the district pay a tax assessment each year, raising a total of about $65,000. Just before the flooding started a month ago, the district still owed about $75,000 on the loan. Now, as a result of the flooding, the district will need substantial help in paying off obligations to the Corps of Engineers.
Meanwhile, at the far end of the levee in an uninhabited area, the water continues to flow into The Big Field. If the rains and flooding continue at record levels, and the waters do not recede, water on both sides of the levee could saturate it, or cause other
as yet unknown problems because the levee has yet to withstand such pressure. Several days ago the water on The Big Field side of the levee was only four feet lower than the flood side of the levee.
Despite the odds against success, Loida said he was not second-guessing the decision. He said: "Have you ever heard of a stock car driver saying, `I've only got 1 chance in 40 of winning the race, so I guess I'll just park my car?' We've got so many people working so hard. I can't say enough about the Corps and everything they have done since the first day of this. They are the kind of people who would be a good neighbor."
Loida lost over 2,000 acres of farmland in the flood. "It couldn't have come at a worse time," he said. "We had just finished planting corn and soybeans with the seed and chemicals costing over $100 an acre."
For farmer Earl Valle, who had about 400 acres of corn and beans in The Big Field, the flooding has meant a total loss this year. "I have no choice but to stay and keep going," he said. "There are about 20 farmers who have been affected. We'll just have to wait and see how the government helps us."
Meanwhile, helicopters from the National Guard patrol the levee every few hours looking for potential breaks and monitoring the rush of water entering from the south eastern portion of the levee.
At the opposite end of the levee, closest to St. Mary's road, the original levee is all but covered by thousands of sandbags as volunteers, townspeople, and the National Guard have stayed one or two feet ahead of the rising waters.