CHARLESTON—It’s not exactly fair to report that Roy Presson cried during his May 16 interview with The Pathway.
He did choke up, though. More than once. Telling his story simply required that.
Presson is a third-generation farmer with 2,400 acres in the Mississippi County spillway. He lives on the flood plain east of Wyatt about three miles from the Mississippi River. When the federal government decided to blow a hole in the Birds Point levee May 2, Presson, a member of First Baptist Church here, became powerless. Water got in his home, maybe a foot deep over the floor.
He said this whole episode has been more than an inconvenience.
“It is suffering,” he said. “I’ve just seen pictures of the people in Alabama and elsewhere with the tornadoes, and I still feel like I’m more fortunate than they are. I mean, they can’t even find their driver’s licenses, and we had a week to get what we wanted out. We’ve got a place to live, and I haven’t missed a meal yet, so it could always be worse.”
The presidential decision, first set in motion by Harry S. Truman, to activate the floodway under certain conditions has left Presson “disappointed.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture indicated it will provide help, but “promises are easy,” Presson said. “We’ll know a lot more a year from now.”
God was seeing to it in early May that water was overflowing the top of the levee, “so it was going to fill up with water on its own,” Presson said. “It would have filled a lot slower and probably done a lot less damage had they just gone ahead and let it naturally overtop. I think that would have been a better solution.
“There are some folks on the lower end of the county that are reasonably sure they won’t plant a crop this year, and I kind of agree with them. Right now thinking I’m going to plant a crop, that just keeps me positive.”
Presson disagrees with those who say that sand, silt, and debris pulled through the breached levee by the current will basically ruin the land for years to come. His wheat crop is destroyed, and it will likely be too late to plant corn, but he also plans on raising soybeans this year. Once the man-made lake dries up, the key is to clear the land by June 30.
“We’ve got 500 acres outside the main river levee,” he said. “It floods every year. We have silt on it. We have chunks, logs—whatever’s got to be picked up. We’ve done that for 25 years. So if that’s the way it is inside, we’ve just got to deal with it. The big issue inside is if your major drainage ditches may have silted in, that’s a major problem.”
Evacuating the family farm was no small feat. Presson and his brother, Ray, have three employees along with equipment and buildings worth more than $1 million. This is where the story becomes emotional.
“When it started I prayed a lot, and I had several prayers answered,” Presson said. “We had more help than we could use getting moved out. People just showed up. We had people come from a long (his voice chokes with emotion) … from a long way off just to help.
“We rodeo, and most of them are rodeo friends that we don’t see often anymore. My daughter had a friend from Columbia. She dropped her son off at school that morning about 8 o’clock and she got down here at noon, 12:30 that day, stayed until 9 o’clock that night, went back to Columbia. Did what she could.
“I think one of the saddest times was the last trip we drove out before they blew it. It might have been two days before. We knew that the water would be in there.”
Presson confirmed that the spillway has a bad fiscal outlook, with a common economic estimate of $300 million in losses. He said many of the people living in the 100 or so homes out there are telling him that they will not go back. Presson has a cousin in Florida who is letting him stay in his home in Charleston. He said living in the spillway will be “a little lonesome” for anyone planning on moving back.
“My daughter was going to rent a house from a neighbor out there, and it was a fairly nice house a mile from where we live,” he said. “One of our neighbors lived in it all of their married life. I told her, ‘Now if the water gets in the house, the fellow that bought the house can’t afford to fix it for you.’ Sure enough, water got to the roof of that house and another one he had just down the road. So there’s two houses gone. And it’s the same way all up and down.”
Considering the severity of the government’s decision to unleash a man-made flood, Presson won’t turn down certain forms of help.
“FEMA’s going to do what they’re going to do, and people are signed up on unemployment, and crop insurance will help,” he said.
He also appreciates what Gov. Nixon tried to do to preserve the levee.
“I think he was just trumped by higher powers,” Presson said.
He said he lives in a flood plain because “I just never thought about living anywhere else.” His father and grandfather felt the same way.
Did the government trample on his property rights?
“It was taken advantage of,” Presson said. “I’m not going to say it was ruined yet.”
He said Missouri Baptists can pray for the weather that he and his brother need—sun and a little rain—along with health and strength to work long days in the field. Right now farmers like Presson, stunned by the flood, are a bit unsettled.
“I’ve lived in the spillway all my life, and I’ve thought about all my life what would we do if this ever happened,” he said. “So now I guess I know.”
Another farmer from First Charleston, Matthew Morrow, testified in church that this is a time to praise God.
He said that even though the flood “makes all of us nervous,” God’s promises are uplifting. And he still has money.
“I can be broke, but there’s a big difference between being broke and being broken, and God’s that difference,” Morrow said.
ALLEN PALMERI/associate editor