Arkansas rivers keep rising

Flooding reaches record levels, damage assessments begin in some communities while others still wait for water to recede

BY NANCY HOGLAND | Des Arc, Ark | March 24, 2008

RECORD FLOODING -- Communities from Texas to Ohio saw scenes like this one during the past few days.
Credit: DNN Photo/Chuck Hogland

Arkansas residents on Monday watched and waited to see just how high rivers would crest.

In communities along the Black River, forecasters say residents there could suffer their worst flooding in nearly a century.

“There will be water going into areas where people have not seen it before, and may not be expecting to see high water,” John Robinson of the National Weather Service in North Little Rock wrote Sunday in an e-mail to reporters, to explain why flood warnings were being issued when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

Already, the White River filled much of the town of Des Arc, and in its Tom Roe Memorial Riverfront Park the water is deep enough that only the top halves of light poles are visible.

Upstream from Des Arc, the Black River, projected to crest Monday at 26.5 feet, the highest there since 1915, broke through a 60-year-old levee Saturday before emergency workers and volunteers could block the flow with sandbags. The Black enters the White River near Newport in northeast Arkansas.

The levee rupture flooded outlying areas south of Pocahontas, forcing the state’s Highway and Transportation Department to close several roads.

“We probably would have been okay had the levee remained intact,” said Pocahontas resident Chuck Hogland. “But once it was breached, water rushed into subdivisions in the bottoms and covered the highways. No one here has ever seen anything like this.”

And although the Black River had started to recede by Monday morning, forecasters said it could go back up to 28 feet by Monday evening, as tributaries continued to empty into the waterway. Eleven major highways in northeast Arkansas are closed some for the first time in the state’s history.

Emergency management officials have estimated damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure at $2 million, though that figure is expected to grow. The National Weather Service said it could be the middle of this week before rivers statewide see significant drops.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe has declared 35 of the 75 counties in the state as disaster areas.

Ginger Bankston Bailey, head of the Arkansas Crisis Response Team for Arkansas’s VOAD, said teams are currently in the field conducting assessments so they will be ready to step in and provide immediate assistance when it is needed.

“Right now we don’t have numbers or even a clear understanding of just how bad it is, but so far, it doesn’t look good,” she said. “However, we’re holding a state-wide conference call tomorrow to share information. We should have a better picture of where we’ll be needed and what will be needed then.”

In Missouri, where thousands were chased from their homes by rising streams and rivers in 70 counties, most of the flood waters are beginning to recede and crews are already busy shoveling mud and debris out of homes and businesses.

The Rev. Mark Dumas, chairman of the Missouri Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD), said volunteers in that state were in the process of moving from emergency response to recovery mode.

“Service International, a non-denominational response team from the Chesterfield area, is sending 500 volunteers into Valley Park and Eureka to start mucking out. However, we’re still waiting to see what is going to happen at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, where rivers will be cresting today,” he said.

The Mississippi River was expected to reach 41.5 feet Monday at Cape Girardeau, nearly 10 feet above flood stage. According to a report from the National Weather Service, if the river reaches 42 feet at Cape Girardeau, 100,000 acres will be flooded, forcing evacuations of numerous homes in outlying areas. The city’s downtown area is protected by a 54-foot flood wall.

Dave Roth, director of Public Policy for the Illinois VOAD, said so far, his state’s residents have fared much better.

“I know of only a handful of people that were forced from homes because the majority of the flooding took place in farmland. We were fortunate this time,” he said, adding that crews from the Adventists and Southern and American Baptists were busy assembling clean-up kits and mobilizing, just in case they would be needed to help residents make order of the mess left behind.

Patti Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, said officials were keeping an eye on a levee near Grand Tower. If that levee is breached, it could overtake the town of about 750 people. She said some Illinois streams may not crest until late Monday.

The National Weather Service predicted that by Tuesday morning, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers near Cairo, Ill., the Mississippi would crest at 54 feet, 14 feet above flood stage. By Friday morning, the river is expected to crest at 41 feet in Caruthersville.

Kentucky and Indiana also experienced mild flooding during the past few days.

But by Monday afternoon, the Ohio River at Louisville, Ky., was beginning to fall. It crested Friday at 3 feet over flood stage and covered riverside roads with silt and debris.

And although several roads in southwestern Indiana remained covered by high water, officials said the flooding risk appeared to be diminishing. Residents of a Vanderburgh County mobile home park that had been evacuated because of concerns over a nearby levee were allowed to return to their homes.

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