Library Categories


The heavy hand of Old Man River

Donald Lynn deals with flooding as part of the life of a farmer in the northwest corner of Tennessee. But when the waters came rolling down from upstream, all he and his family could do was get out the way and watch.

Lynn, who farms north of Tiptonville, had worked feverishly with his family — including his wife, Barbara, and his sister and brother-in-law — to build a levee around his home place to keep out the rushing river. It was no use.

Water rose more than 2 feet a day, overtopping his efforts to protect his land. There was little that he could do but get his family to safety.

Three days later, waiting on news that the river had crested at Tiptonville, Lynn talked about the shock that was still sinking in.

On May 2, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took a drastic step to alleviate the flooding. The corps blew up large portions of a levee near Bird’s Point, Mo., to lessen flooding in Cairo, Ill. One official likened the Mississippi River at the time to one-lane traffic on an interstate, creating a bottleneck. The drastic measure of blowing the levee helped the bottleneck, but it came with a huge wall of water.

Key Points

The decision to blow the levee alleviated flooding in Cairo, Ill.

It took about 4 to 5 feet of water off the crest, but inundated farmland.

Farmers tell their story and look to rebound from the “Great Flood of 2011.”

When the corps blew an 11,000-foot hole in the levee, a 10- to 15-foot wall of water rolled down on top of cropland in the Bootheel of Missouri and farther south in Tennessee. It was a mini-tsunami. The blast was heard about 25 miles away in Dyersburg, Tenn., according to reports.

On May 5, water was still rising along the Main Line Levee, part of the 241-mile system that holds back the Mississippi River from Cape Girardeau, Mo., to the Gulf of Mexico.

Lynn gathered with other farmers in the parking lot at the Dyersburg Fairgrounds waiting for state, federal and local agriculture officials to address the situation.

“We’re here to let the farmers know what the USDA and the federal government have available to help farmers recover,” said Gene Davidson, who heads up the Tennessee Farm Service Agency. Julius Johnson, Tennessee’s ag commissioner, spoke of state support a day after Gov. Bill Haslam toured the area.

Only a week into the disaster, officials were preempting questions that might be ruminating in the heads of farmers — questions such as “Will crop insurance kick in because some of the water from the flooding was the result of a man-made breach?” Officials assured farmers that crop insurance would cover the flooding.

At the time, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was working two disasters in the state: one from deadly tornadoes, the other from the flooding.

The message: Work together

Only a few miles downriver, more than half of Lauderdale County sat underwater. “This is going to be long effort and we will stand with all the families that have been affected,” Davidson said. “That’s the message. We are all working together.”

With the water yet to recede, both officials and farmers were looking at unknown consequences. The question from the floor echoed several times: “What are some of the things that you need from us?”

When that question was asked, farmers started taking turns speaking to the point. “We’re going to need flexibility,” said Dyersburg farmer Jimmy Moody. “We’ll have tremendous drainage issues. We need long-term programs to help us with removal of sand and trees, and internal drainage.”

Already farmers were asking if they could help remove debris from neighbors’ land. They were told that to get credit for their time, they would have to move the debris to public property. “What else do we need to think about?” came a rhetorical question that begged an answer.

“We’ll stay in touch with you,” Johnson said. “Call us at the TDA [Tennessee Department of Agriculture] and the FSA, and we’ll try to make sure we help you. “It’s going to take a while to work out of this one,” Johnson added.

All those gathered in the room seemed to express in applause what Crockett County farmer Jimmy Hargett said: “We appreciate ya’ll coming in on the front end rather than the back end.”

“I’m just praying and trying to think of what I’m going to find when I get back to my place,” Donald Lynn said.

“Aw, we’ll be back,” he added.



Suffering: Floodwaters washed out Donald Lynn’s family farm north of Tiptonville, Tenn.


Federal help: Gene Davidson, Tennessee FSA state director, said the USDA will work together with farmers.


What do you need? Julius Johnson, Tennessee ag commissioner, offered his help to flooded farmers.


Over the levee: Floodwaters of the Mississippi River spill over the top of a levee in northwest Tennessee.

This article published in the July, 2011 edition of MID-SOUTH FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.