The Arkansas River at Pine Bluff was initially supposed to crest Wednesday just a foot shy of the all-time record. Before press time Tuesday, the river sat at 50.3 feet on its way to a 51-foot crest early Thursday, according to the National Weather Service. Flood stage is 42 feet. The all-time record crest, set in 1943, is 52.1 feet.
Meanwhile, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson paid a visit to Pine Bluff and Jefferson County on Tuesday to get an update on the flooding from officials here.
Hutchinson said that the Pine Bluff area may be the largest affected by flood waters. Other areas of the state have approximately 500 combined homes that have been evacuated and are affected by the rising water, while the Pine Bluff area has more than 500 alone that have been evacuated and affected.
“The number I had is over 500 homes have been evacuated state-wide. Then you come down to Pine Bluff and hear the statistic that over 500 homes are affected by it,” Hutchinson said.
“That doesn’t mean that they have evacuated, but that is probably the largest number of homes in one area that have been damaged by this river flood. These are citizens that might not have other places to go. That is why the shelters are so important here that the Red Cross has put up and the community has put up. It is going to be a while before they are able to get back into their homes, and that is when we are going to be able to see a lot of the damage. It is going to take a long time to fix.”
In Trulock Bay north of Pine Bluff, Pat Drewett’s house is only accessible by boat. She told The Commercial’s content partner KATV that this is the worst flooding she has ever experienced.
"I noticed on the graph, I checked we were at 50 feet, and we're supposed to crest at 51, so crossing those fingers," Drewett said.
Street signs and mailboxes are nowhere to be found as the river continues to rise. For now, Drewett’s house remains above water, though.
"First week that it happened, I was in good shape when my neighbors were moving out. I cooked meals for all of them. We do the little things like that. We help each other you know," Drewett said.
Trulock Bay is one of several areas that are under a mandatory evacuation. Over the weekend, a flood warning was issued for areas inside Pine Bluff city limits between University Drive and Lake Saracen, though it has since expired. Regional Park is currently inundated with water, as is Island Harbor and the surrounding area there.
Emergency officials are also closely monitoring the Packing Town and Pot Liquor areas of the city, where the Port Road levee is located. So far, there have been no signs that the levee is in danger or a breach.
Some flooding is also occurring at the Port of Pine Bluff.
Hutchinson is touring the state this week in order to begin the process of collecting damage assessments to turn in to President Donald Trump for the federal disaster declaration aid.
“I spoke with (Jefferson County) Judge Gerald Robinson this morning on the telephone, but I wanted to be here,” Hutchinson said from inside the county’s emergency operations headquarters under the courthouse.
“We have never had this level of a disaster in regards to flooding in the State of Arkansas. As soon as the water starts diminishing, the critical thing is to get damage reports in for the president. Aerial support is being used to get preliminary assessments done by the end of the week to get the approval from the president. A federal declaration from the president will help give us the resources to recover quickly.”
Hutchinson said he has spoken with Trump, and assistance was immediately granted to help prepare for the flooding and aid in the recovery process.
“After my phone call with President Trump, FEMA was immediately on site where they are helping guide and lend support to our efforts,” the governor said.
“The president’s emergency declaration made federal resources available to us. The National Guard had to ask for additional support, and that has been made available as well. We have made requests for sandbagging equipment and transport equipment, and we have received that. The next step is to complete the damage assessment, which I intend to have finished later this week, so we can ask for a presidential disaster declaration, which will provide some individual assistance for the homeowners as well as some of the public infrastructure damage that has been done.”
Robinson said he is appreciative of the governor’s support.
“It is tragic all over the state, and our prayers go out to everyone,” he said. “This dilemma is something we have never seen before. We have levees that could possibly be breached, and we have crews working on them. The levees protecting businesses have been taken care of, so right now I feel like we are okay. We are trying to meet this head-on.”
Hutchinson said that disease and injuries are known to arise from flooding like Arkansas is seeing, and there are measures being put into place to help combat those issues as well.
“The Department of Health has been engaged in our emergency response efforts over the past week,” Hutchinson said.
“They are there every day monitoring the river and any contamination issues. That will be ongoing in the future. Once the water starts receding, you then have challenges with contaminated water, you’ve got issues with recovering livestock that might have been lost during this river flood. There is a lot more to do during the recovery phase that is such a burden for individuals who have suffered loss, but the Department of Health is up to it, and we will get it done.”
Some of those most affected by the massive amounts of rainfall and flooding this year have been local farmers. There will be assistance available for them as well, the governor assured.
“It has been a massive hit whenever you look at the farmers, both in the terms of livestock, but also in the terms of crop loss,” Hutchinson said.
“That is something that will be measured. We hope that the farm loss will be minimal with the crest going southeast, but we will still wait to see because the crest down at Pendleton is still a couple of days away. Once we have the support we need for our citizens, we are looking at using National Guard resources to deliver food to some of the livestock that has been isolated and haven’t been able to get to their food supply.”
Hutchinson also noted that there will be limited resources available for home and business owners who are uninsured.
“First we have to get the federal declaration, and once it becomes a federal disaster, there are some reimbursements available for relocation and temporary shelter expenses,” Hutchinson said. “There will be some available, but it’s not going to be near sufficient to cover the loss of the homes that are uninsured. The same is true for businesses. There are low-interest loans that are available, and for the farmers, there are low-interest loans, but that is the last thing farmers and small business owners need. This is a significant impact for them.”
Hutchinson described the flood as the worst disaster the state has seen under his leadership.
“It is number one,” he said.
“Whenever you look at the disasters we have had to deal with since I’ve been governor, we have had floods and we have had tornadoes, but we’ve never had anything as devastating as this historic flood that has reached levels nobody has anticipated before. It has flooded areas we haven’t anticipating being flooded before. This is the highest level of disaster that I have seen. It is very unusual, too. A tornado can hit, and it is done and you can get to recover. Here we have had weeks of preparation for this flooding. It is a real stress on our emergency management teams that have to be there every day. “We are in new territory that we haven’t seen before, and the concern is how long will the recovery part be? How long will it take this record-breaking flood to recede? We will have to wait and see, and a lot of that is out of control due to the weather.”
While there are no preliminary numbers in regards to the dollar amount it will cost to restore affected areas, there is a dollar amount for the hit that the Arkansas River Navigation System is taking on a day-to-day basis.
“The only figure that is of great significance is the loss of the navigation channel,” Hutchinson said. “It is a $23 million hit every day to the economy of Arkansas. It is kind of the kind of economic impact the river has with its navigation system."