It has been 10 weeks since widespread flash flooding struck the southern Missouri Ozarks in what has been called a 100- or 500-year flood event.
In these weeks, the stories told by survivors have shifted not-so-subtly from miracles to rebuilding lives and dealing with the flood’s aftermath.
Federal agencies have made their presence known through the area, and even after disaster recovery centers close, Federal Emergency Management (FEMA) and U.S. Small Business Administration representatives say they will still be around.
In places like West Plains, with its relative wealth of resources and labor, the signs of disaster are near-hidden in piles of detritus contracted out to be picked up one at a time, or in the bent aluminum siding of old factory buildings and the fresh plywood framed roofs of small businesses in the Washington Avenue valley.
There are places in nearby counties, more rural and with fewer resources – like Thomasville in Oregon County – that have no municipal government of their own and rely on a county government to look after them. Places with small populations that took as much damage if not more than seen in West Plains, often have only a few hands to clean the messes that remain.
It is with Thomasville that the Quill begins this series, and the question is begged: Is the 214-year-old community in danger of becoming a ghost town?
The Quill will also travel the path of Howell and Galloway creeks in West Plains and examine where the worst of the damage occurred, learn who has rebuilt and who is rebuilding, who has stayed and who is moving. Maps showing the changes brought by a developing community will be reviewed and the resilience of the locals will be highlighted, with an eye toward the future: Now that we know this is possible, how do we come together to minimize the damage in the future?
AT HOME IN THOMASVILLE
The Quill recently visited with four generations of a five-generation family with deep roots in Thomasville, led by Becka Trobaugh. She explained that her ancestors settled in the area in the mid-19th century, and before April 29, all five generations lived just feet from one another in the heart of the town that was founded in 1803.
Thomasville isn’t a big place, and it can’t even technically be called a “town.” It has no government of its own, no post office, no school. It is a community within the Moore Township of Oregon County, and is made up of a three-block by three-block grid of streets that crosses over Highway 99 north of Alton. Trobaugh and her husband and children, her parents, grandparents and great-grandmother lived along Walnut Street south of Highway 99.
“Ever seen ‘The Wonder Years’?” Trobaugh asked the Quill, referring to a popular TV show aired in the late 1980s and set in a quiet 1960s suburb. “That was us. That was Thomasville.”
Looking at a satellite view of Thomasville, one can see that those five houses are among about two dozen within that nine-block grid. There are a handful of homes scattered about just outside the grid. The Oregon County Clerk’s office says that, give or take, Thomasville’s population is 60 people.
Trobaugh and her father, Rodger Shelton explained that, of those roughly two dozen houses, only two did not take on water in the April flood. Their assertion echoed one made to the Quill by Presiding Oregon County Commissioner Patrick Ledgerwood in early May.
Not only did all of the other houses take on water, most of them took on so much water, said Shelton, they are now unlivable. Some were occupied by residents whose homes had been paid for long ago, and others were occupied by young families with years left to pay on the mortgage.
Yards once beautifully landscaped in this old “garden spot” are littered with metal, rocks, branches, flotsam and jetsam left behind by two raging rivers converging on the community. And for Shelton, rebuilding the home that he pieced together by hand and raised his children in isn’t an option; as far as he’s concerned, it’s not a matter of it will happen again, but when.
Thomasville itself begins just a couple hundred feet north of the Eleven Point River. And about 2,000 feet from the point where Highway 99 enters the community on the south side, the Middle Fork joins the Eleven Point.
That’s a lot of water to start with. And the 138-mile-long Eleven Point River originates near Willow Springs. County officials told the Quill in May that they thought the flooding was caused by runoff into the river from areas affected by the rain, in addition to the National Weather Service-estimated 10.5 to 12.5 inches that fell over Thomasville.