The Arkansas River is expected to crest at 51.5 feet on Friday, up from the previously projected crest of 51 feet, according to the National Weather Service.
That’s just a few inches shy of the all-time record of 52.1 feet set in 1943. Flood stage is 42 feet.
The crest date has been shifted several times.
But even after the crest, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Jay Townsend expects water to remain in the area for several more weeks.
“It feels like we’ve been going through this for a very long time,” Townsend said. “People might get complacent and try to get out and see it or get closer to it. We just want to really urge caution, that these are still historic flows, and in many areas, higher than they’ve ever been.”
Townsend said that the Arkansas River Navigation System is not designed for flood control, but the system had help due to preparation by the Corps of Engineers.
“We’re really focusing on our levees along the navigation channel,” Townsend said. “The levee systems, they’re about 50-60 years old now and weren’t designed for this much water on them for this amount of time. It’s moving slowly, but we’ve been able to get our structures out of the water and let as much of it pass as fast as we possibly can.”
There have been levee breaks along the river – the main one being at Holla Bend near Dardanelle – but the majority of the levees have held. However, Townsend noted that the Pine Bluff area could be an area of concern and residents should keep an eye as the river begins to crest.
“This is a flood like we haven’t experienced,” Townsend said. “The levees are being tested like they haven’t been tested before, so they’re going to have a lot of water on them for a long amount of time. And, if there was a situation where an evacuation was ordered, if you have a plan and you’ve practiced, and you rehearsed it, you’re going to be able to get our quicker.”
Townsend said that when the water finally begins to recede, the river will not necessarily slow down. The river will remain dangerous for well into the summer. It will be after the river’s depth and speed return to normal that many repairs can begin.
“Then we can get our parks and recreation areas serviceable again,” Townsend said. “Maybe by the fall. There is a long recovery process when something’s had this much water on it for this amount of time.”
The long recovery process could mean visitors will see barricades and caution tape along the Arkansas River for a considerable amount of time once the river finally drops.
“People really need to understand that the most imminent danger may not be one you can see right in front of you,” Townsend said. “It could be concrete that’s ready to slide away, or an embankment or something that’s ready to fall off. So, please use caution whenever you’re around those areas.”
Due to this, it may be several months before barge traffic can resume along the Arkansas River. Locks and dams must be inspected and in working order before commercial river travel can begin again.
In Pine Bluff, many are watching eagerly in hopes that the water doesn’t reach across the Martha Mitchell Expressway. It’s already just a few feet shy. Regional Park is inundated. Island Harbor is inundated. Riverside Drive and many other areas north of there are inundated. Mandatory evacuations were placed in effect for these areas last week.
Officials are also closely monitoring the Port Road Levee, which is in Packing Town and Pot Liquor. So far, no evacuation order has come for this area.
At the Donald W. Reynolds Center on Second Avenue in downtown Pine Bluff Wednesday, sandbags surrounded the facility’s entrances.
Leslie Dorn, executive director of the United Way for Southeast Arkansas, which operates the building, said it’s out of an abundance of caution.
“We are just being on the safe side,” she said.
Jason Hooks, director of the Delta Rivers Nature Center located inside of Regional Park, said on the facility’s Facebook site that he and others with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission are “watching the water slowly rise in the place we truly love. I know many of you that are regular visitors are also very concerned.
“Many of you, your children, and grandchildren have grown up visiting the center and learning about wildlife and fisheries conservation with us. We appreciate your loyal support. We will not be able to fully access the damages until the water recedes below flood stage. At this time, we do not know if water will get into the main building. We are hopeful the river crest does not increase beyond 51 ft. It will be very close.”