Iowa farmers face forward, into sun THE GREAT FLOOD OF '93

August 12, 1993|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer

WEVER, Iowa -- The road to Harold Bonar's thousand acres ends in a lake of God's creation, where dusk's red sun tints the water copper and cranes stand like shadowy sentries over corn and soybean fields swallowed by a river.

What the swollen Mississippi River didn't fell through force, it claimed by decay: leafy stalks of corn, their tops already tasseled, have been reduced to bamboo-like sticks a mere 2 feet high. Even the green corn that remains is yellowing at its base, the sign of too much water and another crop lost to the Midwest's record rainfall and the Great Flood of 1993.

It is the same throughout the Green Bay Bottoms, a 14,000-acre tract of southeast Iowa farmland ravaged by a levee break here July 11. Only a tenth of the acreage will be fit to harvest this fall.

"Water just kills it. Suffocates it," Mr. Bonar says as his truck rumbles past field after field of stubble.

"I bought a no-till drill, first time I ever used it," he says of the machine that enables a farmer to plant seed without having first to plow and work the ground. "It just worked beautiful. I had the nicest-looking beans. Maybe next year."

If Harold Bonar sounds resigned, farming for most of his 59 years on land surrounded by two rivers and a creek may account for his attitude.

But he is the same man in overalls and cap who laughs at wood ducks scampering across his water-logged fields, touts the canned water delivered daily by the Red Cross and appreciates the now sun-filled skies.

"It's done," he says matter-of-factly about the loss of his crop, the early sale of his hogs. "So look ahead."

With the waters receding a foot each day, the 50 families who live in Green Bay Bottoms are tending to their futures -- pumping sewage water from basements, scrubbing muddied and mildewed walls with bleach, tearing out water-logged drywall and insulation.

They are sweeping hog pens of hundreds of soggy corn husks, trying to empty the local grain elevator of a half-million dollars' worth of still-good soybeans, lobbying the Army Corps of Engineers to repair the levee breaks before winter.

Like many of their neighbors, Ellyn and Charlie Miller had cleared the two-story white farmhouse of its furniture before the river crested last month.

When the levee broke in two places, the murky flood waters swirled 3 feet high into the couple's home. Today, the water mark stops just below the front door knob.

"We're living in a pop-up camper and his machine shop," says Mrs. Miller, standing on the muddied flats of her once-green front lawn.

And they won't be moving back in -- the wind and water twisted the house about 2 feet off its foundation.

"To me, the logical thing is to burn it down," Mr. Miller says of the only home his three grown children have known.

Those are the kinds of decisions being made in Green Bay Bottoms these days. And while all may not be as startling as the Millers', they chart the struggles and persistence of farmer and community alike to recover the life they knew.

"We don't know what normal is anymore," says Nadine Bonar, whose garden of pink hibiscus, Surprise Lilies, allium and bee balm bloom within sight of toppled grain bins floating like tin cans in the water. "We have to get back somehow."

No one's leaving

Finally, Bud Pieper can get to his home without having to motor through the smelly, muddy river waters. A tractor may not be the ideal mode of transportation, but it means progress.

For weeks now, the core of the Pieper family farm -- his house and those of two sons, the towering steel storage bins, the hog confinement buildings -- have been a small island in a many-acre sea.

Much of the farm's 3,200 acres of corn and soybean is under water. And the water runs without interruption to the 9-foot levee and the Mississippi River beyond.

But Bud Pieper knows the land so well that as he navigates his skiff across it, he can tell you the moment when he crosses a

road, and he can maneuver down a deep drainage ditch and identify as his the two tractors that are submerged past their cabs.

The loss in just what it cost to seed and fertilize the land is about $700,000.

"Of course, a person doesn't like to think about that," Mr. Pieper ++ replies when asked about the year's total losses from the flood.

And he is quick to add: "I don't know of anyone who's leaving. Most of the farmers who have been farming around are going to have to survive on their own" until next spring's planting.

Like many other farmers in the Bottoms, the Piepers carry no flood insurance. The odds were in their favor. The last time the farm flooded out was 1951 after an ice jam on the Skunk River. Bud Pieper had just bought his first 146 acres and had just gotten married. With no crop planted, he and his new bride honeymooned for a month in Acapulco, Mexico.

"We put the flood behind us," he recalls.

Not so, this year. Mr. Pieper, 69, has been to Washington with other area farmers to lobby for swift repair to the levee and an increase in its height to 15 feet.

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