Response set as floods continue

Hundreds of homes damaged, more rain predicted in soggy south

BY VICKI DESORMIER | March 28, 2008

Volunteers stuff sandbags in an effort to save houses near the Cache River, a tributary of the White River, which has been experiencing high levels due to flooding north of Arkansas.
Credit: Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

With water rushing down the White River at higher levels than they have been in a quarter century, volunteers are standing by to help with recovery as soon as the rising river and others in Arkansas and the Midwest crest.

Friday is probably the earliest time the rivers will start to reach their highest point, but with rain expected that day through much of the state, conditions could get worse before they get better.

According to Renee Fair, a National Weather Service meterorologist in Little Rock, the rain expected this weekend should not be anything like the amounts that were seen last week, when five to 10 inches fell over a two and a half day period. The chance of rain continues through Wednesday.

Rain or not, the threat of flooding continues.

Excessive runoff from last week's rain will still push river levels higher, mostly in the eastern part of the state, near the border with Missouri. The greatest threat remains for the lower White River, the Black River and the Cache River, which is beginning to rise as the Black and White rivers reach beyond their limits.

Flooding continues in Missouri and Illinois as well, but it gets worse the farther south one travels, Fair said.

The National Weather Service has issued wind warnings, Fair said, because the gusts of up to 20 miles per hour on the open water of the rivers could make the flooding on shore worse by pushing the waves over the river banks.

Tommy Johnson, public information officer with the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management (ADEM) said that while conditions in the northern and eastern parts of the state are starting to ease, the rain could cause problems as the White River could start backing into the Cache River in Prairie County.

"Overall we're looking better," Johnson said, "but we're keeping an eye on the Mississippi."

In Prairie County, Johnson said, volunteers had spotted five more sand boils in the levee where volunteers had been using sandbags to shore up the barrier against the rising waters. This time, they were able to contain the boils by placing barrels over them.

"We are just being vigilant across the state, keeping an eye on all the rivers, watching the weather and making sure we stay on top of things," he said.

In the northern part of the state, teams from FEMA and ADEM spent Thursday driving through the area and doing "very preliminary assessments" of the flood damage. More than half the state (35 counties) has already been declared a disaster area by Gov. Mike Bebee.

Johnson said there are still a lot of areas of the state the disaster officials can't access to get a handle on the extent of the damage. Even in the northern part of the state, where the rivers have begun to recede, the chance of rain over the weekend will make full assessment of the situation difficult to complete.

While the assessment teams are not yet through with their work and rains are expected to cause more damage before it's over, volunteers are getting ready to head into the areas to help as soon as they are able.

The Rev. Tom Hazelwood of the United Methodist Committee on Response (UMCOR) said volunteers are being put on alert. The first-response team members are preparing to go to Arkansas and some areas of Missouri this weekend unless officials tell them to hold off because of the rain. They will begin in the northern part of the state and work their way south, he said.

He said that some 1,700 Flood Buckets filled with cleaning supplies, gloves and other necessities of mopping up after flood waters have receded were shipped from Louisiana to an UMCOR staging area in Missouri. When the volunteers are deployed to clean up, the buckets will be with them as they set to work.

For now, however, Hazelwood said, the workers will have to keep an eye on the weather and stay in touch with state and county emergency management organizations. "We're in the wait-and-see mode right now," he said.

Volunteers from NECHAMA - Jewish Response to Disaster - are planning to send a supply trailer and a small assessment team to an area south of St. Louis, Mo. this weekend. When the waters begin to pull back and volunteers can get in to help, they will bring in people to begin the clean up.

For now, director Seth Gardner who will be driving the trailer down from Minneapolis, said he will bring a small assessment team to find where their services are most needed. To begin, they will work with local volunteers from the Jewish communities affected by the flood waters and with those volunteers who are not affiliated with any particular relief organizations.

"We can always put someone's particular talents to good use," he said.

When the time is right, he said, they will put other volunteers where they are needed. He said he has plans to stay in the flooded areas around southern Missouri for at least a month.

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