The 500-year Arkansas River flood that has submerged sections of Arkansas and Oklahoma usually above water has left its mark on the Fort Smith region and affected daily life in more ways than can be measured.
The river, which early Saturday morning crested at 40.79 feet and flowed at an estimated 570,000 feet per second at the Van Buren gauge after breaking the area flood record on May 26, has affected hundreds of homes and displaced even more residents in the region. Fort Smith, Van Buren and the surrounding areas is just one of several devastated communities throughout Oklahoma and Arkansas that prompted President Donald Trump to sign disaster declarations to direct Federal Emergency Management assistance to Arkansas and Oklahoma counties affected by the floods.
The flood has tested the resolve of area first responders, who have taken on even more duties than usual during the disaster. They have also tested the strength of levees that have never in their history held back this much water.
These realities don’t account for businesses, farmers and others that will have to recover in the coming months from the swollen river.
“This is one of those instances in which the pain is going to be with us for some time,” Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday at a news conference on the Garrison Bridge. The bridge, which draws U.S. Highway 64 over the river into Fort Smith, closed to traffic on May 26 after most of the highway between the bridge and Roland was under water.
The river in May rose to historic levels throughout Oklahoma and Arkansas after U.S. Army Corps of Engineers workers were forced to release large amounts of water following record floods upstream from Tulsa. The floods first submerged Tulsa-area communities before sending much of the Muskogee area under water and forcing two barges downstream toward Lock and Dam 16 at the largely submerged Webbers Falls on May 23. The river on Saturday had stayed above the previous Van Buren gauge record of 38.1 feet since May 26 and on Friday broke a 40-foot hole in a Yell County levee.
The river on Friday had affected an estimated “couple of thousands of households” in Arkansas, according to Arkansas Department of Emergency Management Public Information Officer Melody Daniel. Hutchinson at his news conference said the flood has cost Arkansas’ gross domestic product about $23 million per day because of impeded river and bridge navigation.
Trump on Thursday night signed the Arkansas disaster declaration, which directs Federal aid to Arkansas, Chico, Conway, Crawford, Desha, Faulkner, Franklin, Jefferson, Johnson, Lincoln, Logan, Perry, Pope, Pulaski, Sebastian and Yell counties. He signed the Oklahoma declaration on May 25, which directs aid to Haskell, Kay, LeFlore, Muskogee, Noble, Osage, Pawnee, Sequoyah, Tulsa and Wagoner counties.
Daniel said the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management has been activated to Level 1, or “full activation,” for the flood event.
“This is a tragedy that’s unfolded. It’s going to be a while before it’s over,” said U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark. “We can’t control whether or not Mother Nature does these things, but on the other hand, we can control the response.”
The flood locally has put pressure on the levee near the Yoestown bottoms in Crawford County, which on Tuesday morning “slid” with the river, officials said. Officials that day responded to that section of levee, which as of Saturday had not breached and was stabilized, according to Crawford County Emergency Management Director Brad Thomas. Officials predicted the flood could reach as far west as east Van Buren in a breach.
The flood also prompted Arkansas Department of Transportation officials on Monday to close the Midland Boulevard and Interstate 540 bridges between Fort Smith and Van Buren. The bridges have remained open since Tuesday after officials confirmed the flood threat on the roads had subsided.
But the flood remained a threat to motorists in the city, who since Saturday have had to navigate barricades set up around floodwaters in city streets. Tommy Adams, 64, of Charleston died Monday after he drove his van around barriers near the Fort Chaffee main gate and into water on State Highway 22.
“It’s bad, and it’s going to take a long time to recover,” said Sequoyah County Emergency Management Director Steve Rutherford.
Homes submerged, residents affected
The effect of the flood can most readily be seen in residents who have been forced to leave their homes.
The floods in Fort Smith alone have affected roughly 500 homes, thus impacting about 1,000 city residents — roughly 1.15 percent of the city population. Added to this number are the more than 100 residents in Moffett who were forced to evacuate their homes, the residents in the 45 affected homes in Sebastian County and its smaller municipalities and the 25 affected homes in Crawford County and its municipalities, according to city and county officials.
Rutherford on Saturday said more Sequoyah County residents outside Moffett are displaced from the floods, though he couldn’t give an exact figure.
Red Cross officials on May 24 opened a shelter for displaced flood victims at Evangel Temple in Fort Smith. The shelter on Friday had around 75 people.
Hutchinson the same day announced the Arkansas National Guard would be in the Fort Smith region to conduct high water rescues if needed. Guard Cpl. Stephen Wright on Saturday said they had not conducted any rescues to his knowledge, though guard members had delivered food to the community and supplies for a church.
Beam said he would like to see the floodwaters subside so he can begin the damage assessment process.
“The recovery phase is when we start doing damage assessments with the homes and the residents. We’ll see who actually got flooded, who got water, how much water was in the homes, what the addresses are and everything,” he said.
‘They’re really risking their lives’
First responders, officials and public workers during the flood have been forced to extend their resources farther.
Fort Smith interim Police Chief Danny Baker on Tuesday said he restructured the Police Department to make room for additional patrol officers during the floods. Van Buren Police Chief Jamie Hammond said he has made room for more patrol officers as well.
“Just like Fort Smith, but on a much smaller scale, we have had overtime hours for officers to help with this effort,” he said. “We will continue to do that.”
Fort Smith police at times during the flood have blocked off more than 50 roads throughout the city. They also patrolled for “lookey-loos” — people who enter neighborhoods simply to view the floods.
Van Buren police on Tuesday had blocked off a section of road near the Jefferson Street Bridge but on Friday had opened up the bridge for pedestrians to see the historic flood.
Fort Smith Fire Chief said the Fire Department has “been in full force” during the flood, which has prevented any gaps in day-to-day services. Van Buren Fire Chief Tim Arnold said his firefighters patrol the levees that stand between the river and the city.
Van Buren firefighters aren’t the only ones patrolling the levees during the flood. In rural Crawford County, local and state officials have patrolled the levee 24 hours a day, said County Judge Dennis Gilstrap. County Sheriff Ron Brown on Thursday said those working near where the levee slid in Yoestown bottoms “have no escape route” if it breaches.
“They’re really risking their lives, patrolling those levees on top of those sandbags,” Gilstrap said. “The mosquitoes will eat you alive down there. Just hat everyone is going through is amazing.”
The levee response
The levee in Crawford County may be stabilized, but local officials are still monitoring the situation closely.
The 80-foot wide, 12-foot high stretch of levee near the Yoestown bottoms that slid on Tuesday morning holds back a flood that would threaten more than 250 people and 152 residences in the event of a breach, officials say. Thomas on Saturday said the river would need to fall several more feet before it is off the levee in that part of the county.
Brown said officials will set up a mobile command post in Pleasant Valley Church of Christ if the levee breaches in that stretch. He said law enforcement will answer 911 calls, conduct primary search and rescue efforts and then conduct secondary search and rescue after the floodwaters settle down.
Brown also said state officials will come to the area in such an event.
“We’ll have the army we need if it breaches,” he said.
In the meantime, Brown is preparing for incoming weather in that specific area.
“We’ve got a six-man crew with the help of the National Guard, Department of Emergency Management, Crawford County Sheriff’s Deputies and the National Guard. It’ll be six of us total, and we’ll go in, cover it and leave it covered until after this rain,” he said.
‘We have to wait’
Incoming weather may hamper relief efforts that local, state and federal officials are eager to start in the region.
The National Weather Service on Saturday night predicted Tulsa to likely have a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms on Sunday and a 60 percent chance of thunderstorms on Monday. Fort Smith had a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms Sunday night and Monday and a 60 percent chance Wednesday.
NWS Meteorologist Mike Lacy said the rain could prolong the river levels “if it falls in the right spot.” FEMA Affairs Officer Daniel Green on Friday said federal officials can only focus on flood mitigation efforts until the river level decreases, which is when they can assess damage.
“This is, at the moment, us making sure the flood fight continues at its fullest strength possible,” Green said.
Lacy on Saturday said he doesn’t know what the full impact from the storms will be, but said it won’t likely be as widespread as the storms that caused the current floods. He said he and other meteorologists hope they don’t see as heavy of rain in such a widespread area.
Beam hopes the same.
“When we start to get the waters down, we’ll get the damage assessment process,” Beam said. “I know the citizens of the county want it done now, but we cannot do it now. We have to wait.”
Max Bryan is a reporter for The Commercial's sister publication, The Times Record in Fort Smith.