Major floods along Arkansas River, US
The Arkansas River rose above its estimated flood crest of 51 feet, causing major damage to buildings and crops in Arkansas, US. The usually placid tributary of the Mississippi has become a bloated torrent carrying entire trees downstream, drowning riverfront property and halting commerce for hundreds of miles. Arkansas Governor, Asa Hutchinson, said on Thursday, 30 May 2019, the high water is costing the state economy an estimated $23 million each day. The river was forecast to crest on Wednesday, 5 June 2019, in Little Rock and there is so much water moving downstream that it will likely be more than a week before floodwaters begin to recede from many areas.
His state joins others from the Dakotas down to Louisiana that have been dealing with weeks or even months of record-breaking flooding along the Mississippi River and its major tributaries. Back-to-back rainstorms have swept across the region, sometimes dumping inches of rain in just hours. And, while flooding is a part of life along the rivers, this spring's relentless, extreme rain makes the disaster unfolding at the centre of the country emblematic of a larger trend: Climate change is causing more extreme rain in some parts of the US and that can cause more extreme flooding.
According to the most recent National Climate Assessment, "The frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation events across the United States have increased," especially in the northern and central parts of the country.
That means, although this flood is breaking records across the central US, it may not be the last time officials and infrastructure, will be forced to deal with a disaster of this magnitude. On the Arkansas River, levees were built more than 60 years ago in most cases and were not necessarily designed to withstand the kind of constant onslaught of high water that comes with a multi-week flood.
And the locks and dams along the river aren't there to protect against flooding, they're designed to make sure there's enough water in the river for barge traffic. "They are there to make sure there's a minimum of nine feet of water in the channel," says Army Corps of Engineers spokesperson Laurie Driver.
It all adds up to hundreds of thousands of people and millions of dollars in commerce, relying on infrastructure that, in many cases, was not designed to protect against so much water for such a long period of time.
So far, water has come over the top of a handful of levees on the Arkansas, including a major break near Dardanelle overnight on Thursday. Hundreds of workers are surveying the structures, looking for weaknesses and patching low areas with extra sand.
The prolonged flooding also has created problems for emergency officials who rely on evacuations to keep people safe. In some areas, it's been difficult to convince residents whose homes have never flooded that they need to leave. "There are a lot of people who just didn't want to leave," says Jesse Cantu, who evacuated with his four children from near the community of Toad Suck. On Thursday, they were one of the only families at the Red Cross shelter nearby.
"Actually, our landlord hasn't evacuated," Cantu said. "Hopefully it doesn't get to a situation where they have to rescue him. It's pride and it's, like, he's seen the river come up before and it's always been fine, so he just said, 'I'm not leaving.' "
"It's been less busy than what we thought it would be," says Red Cross volunteer Jim Hewitt, standing in a nearly empty gymnasium filled with cots. "We'll be here until they don't need us anymore. It's going to take a long time for the water to go down."
Even Cantu's sister-in-law and her family have refused to evacuate to the shelter. "She didn't want to leave because it never happened before. Like, last time it hit it didn't even get to our parking lot," he says. "I'm like, "Yeah but this time it is. It's going to crest even more than record.' So you have to understand that and leave. Or you might not survive this."
Cantu says, so far, he hasn't been able to convince all his extended family to come to the shelter and the water has cut off access to some neighbourhoods, stranding those who stayed behind.
Upstream in Fort Smith, John Hutchins and his wife of 42 years, Louise, stand in their open garage behind a knee-high wall of sandbags, looking at their flooded street. What had been parking spots looks like a pond, complete with a flock of geese. There's a parked car with water up to the wheel wells. Many of their neighbours have evacuated.
"We just felt like we didn't need to leave our home," Louise says. "We had a fire battalion chief that said he recommended that we leave and I looked at him and said, 'OK, thank you.' And I didn't go anywhere."
"So as long as we had power, we was gonna stay," John adds. "This isn't a flood zone," Louise says. "Supposedly. Talking to some of the neighbours who've lived here for years, it's never done this."
The governor stressed the flood of 2019 is the highest level of a disaster he has witnessed during his time in office. "We're in new territory that we haven't seen before and the concern is well, how long will the recovery part be? How long will it take for this historic record flooding to recede? We'll have to wait and see. A lot of that depends on things that are out of our control which is the weather," Hutchinson said.
Emergency management, mayors from various Jefferson County communities and law enforcement convened with Hutchinson's staff to layout the flooding situation in Pine Bluff. More than 500 homes are affected in some capacity by the river with about a dozen or so residents deciding to ride out the floodwaters. Jefferson County is among the hardest hit areas in the Natural State in terms of concentration of impacted houses. Hutchinson visited Island Harbor Marina, one of several affected communities where homes are submerged.
Hutchinson and his team are working on assembling a preliminary damage report to submit to President Donald Trump. "If we can get that approval by the president, then that means FEMA can come in a larger number to help us quickly do the assessments to get relief to the homeowners," Hutchinson said.
The federal declaration is crucial to assisting businesses, farmers and homeowners impacted by the extensive flooding, although the financial assistance will not be sufficient to cover the loss of property that is uninsured.
He adds it's too early to estimate how much it will cost to impact to fully repair affected communities.
Hutchinson noted the goal is to submit a preliminary damage assessment by the end of the week.
Source: National Public Radio and KATV