Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington has had to face some serious challenges over the past couple of months with a tornado and flood striking the city. She and her team learned on the go at times, but her hard work has been recognized by Governor Asa Hutchinson, who has asked her to be on the renewed levee task force.

Washington said that she has agreed to serve on the task force, and that this is the right time to get to work.

“Governor Hutchinson is creating a levee board task force, and he called down and asked if I would serve on that board, so I have agreed to serve,” said Washington. “Then I think at this point in time, with this so fresh and on everyone's mind, you have an opportunity to make sure the levees are safe and sound again and have people who are ready to volunteer.”

“We have to seize the moment while we have that moment of opportunity there,” she said. “We have to get these people into work on improvements to make sure as we face these climate changes. We don't know how often we will have big rains like we have had lately, so we have got to prepare for it. If we see that we dropped the ball, we have to pick it up, shine it up, and patch it up.”

Washington noted that the Pine Bluff City Council passed legislation earlier in the week to repair a levee in Pine Bluff.

“We passed a piece of legislation to repair one of our levees and some other things there,” said Washington. “That is going to be pretty much ongoing.”

Washington said that there were individual farmers who have fields alongside the Arkansas River levee system who were attempting to repair damaged portions of the levees before the flood waters reached Pine Bluff.

“I did not realize we had farmers out there who were trying to repair levees,” said Washington. “I saw the levees, but I didn't know whose responsibility it was. It is farmers', but they are part of a board that went defunct. One guy on the other side of PJ's was trying to maintain and close up a gap by himself. He gave up, then the street department went down there, and it was a pretty big break in it. The street department helped him to shore it up.”

Washington met with Senator Tom Cotton earlier in the week to discuss what has to be done to move forward, now that flood waters have receded.

“As we move forward, we were talking about making sure our cities are safe and documentation – making sure we keep up with everything that is spent so we can look to recover some of the money we spent,” Washington said.

“Most of our money has been spent so far on cleanup, providing security, paying overtime for our street department workers. Right now we are spending a lot of money on dumpsters because we are paying for all of that stuff has to be moved from down at Riverside drive. All of that cost is going to the city, so we are trying to keep accurate records. I think the refund will be like 75 percent.”

There could be additional help for refunds to the city as well.

“We met with a FEMA worker the other day who said that we can get 75 percent, but that other 25 percent could be split,” said Washington. “It will be 75 federal, then 25 city, but that 25 could be split to 12.5 percent city and 12.5 by the state, so that is what we hope we will have.”

Washington said that she has learned a lot while presiding over two natural disasters in less than a two-month time period.

“I will tell you, I did not know what all the Office of Emergency Management did,” said Washington. “I guess my biggest takeaway is how the collaborative effort of all of the entities working together takes away from some of the stress. When I am at home and thinking about what all is going on, you can go crazy. But, when you come together with our Office of Emergency Management and with the State Office of Emergency Management, then you have the Red Cross stepping up – you feel like you are not in this by yourself. When you feel like you are by yourself, it is overwhelming. So that collaboration was the key to survival to me.”

Washington said it was important for her to keep the citizens of Pine Bluff up to date on developments before, during, and after the tornado and the flood.

“It was important that we connected with the citizens who were involved with this,” said Washington. “They are the ones who are at the center of all of this and were catching it. We have to let them know that we are going to support them until they are back on their feet.”