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Rivers keep rising in soggy Midwest

More rain predicted, thousands leave homes as floods reach record levels

BY VICKI DESORMIER | March 31, 2008

The White River in Arkansas could reach historic levels this week. The devastating damage that has already ripped through the state held steady over the weekend, Renee Preslar of the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management said, but more rain is expected Monday night.

But the White River is just one of many rivers across the Midwest that is expected to reach levels that could surpass records set 25 years ago.

"We're just holding our breath on that right now," Preslar said.

The water in the White River is being pushed higher by swollen rivers upstream in Missouri where flash flood warnings and watches have been issued in 67 of the state's 114 counties.

While thousands of people have fled their homes from the floods in Missouri, Ohio and Southern Illinois, the waters continue to rise and threaten cities and towns in Arkansas as the swollen rivers to the north push the waters downstream.

Two breaches in a levee on the Black River, a tributary to the White River, near Pocahontas were repaired last week and held over the weekend. The levee is more than six decades old and hadn't been maintained as well as it should have been, she said, but with the repairs that have been made this spring, it should hold against additional water.

The breaks did allow water through in a few outlying areas, but there was no damage to buildings and no harm to any people there, Preslar said.

Two people, one in Stone and one in Washington have been swept away by flood waters. Both of their bodies have been recovered, she said. In all, she reported, 18 fatalities have been linked to the floods, many of them due to hazardous driving conditions on roads and highways.

While the water continues to rise in the southeastern part of the state, the northwestern counties are beginning to dry out enough to allow preliminary damage assessment teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and state disaster officials to get a better look at the damage that has occurred in that area.

"We've been able to get quite a few teams out over the last few days to look things over. Some counties will take a couple of days to finish," said Dan Martinez, a spokesman for FEMA. "They do not move on to the next counties on their list until they are completely done with the ones they are working on. Many more counties are being added to the list for assessments, so they're moving through the list as fast as they are able."

Of the counties that have been assessed so far, 11 have been declared eligible for individual assistance and ten are eligible for public assistance to help with repairs to infrastructure. The assessments will continue as the waters continue to recede across the state.

"We won't have a full picture for some time," Martinez said.

Martinez said FEMA is standing by, ready to set up Disaster Recovery Centers across Arkansas as soon as they get the go ahead from the state. Martinez said these centers are staffed with disaster program specialists from FEMA, the state, the Small Business Administration and other agencies.

"(They) are vital source of disaster assistance information to many individuals who may not have access to telephones and internet," he added.

FEMA has some trailers in Hope, AR that are being tested for formaldehyde. The ones that have been tested have been found to have "very, very low levels", Martinez said, but Arkansas state officials have to approve them before they can be sent out to any disaster sites.

Across northwestern Arkansas, the Salvation Army has been on the ground providing meals to people who have been evacuated from their homes in that part of the state. According to Maj. Jeff Daniel of the Mountain Home Corps, the Army provided more than 500 meals to people displaced by the water this past weekend.

"It's hard to get in and out until the assessments are done," he said. "Right now we're just feeding people where we can."

The Rev. Tom Hazelwood of the United Methodist Committee on Response (UMCOR) said 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.

Volunteers from NECHAMA - Jewish Response to Disaster - sent a supply trailer and a small assessment team to an area south of St. Louis, Mo. over the 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.

Until the assessments are done, everything is on hold, Preslar said. Even state and federal assessment teams are having to move slowly to be sure that it's safe to enter an area.

For now, the waters are still rising, and rain may increase the chance of flooding along the rivers, which could back up further and cause more flooding.

"We just have to do what we can as we can do it," Preslar added.

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