Before Memorial Day, the Gov. Mike Huckabee Delta Rivers Nature Center closed in anticipation of major flooding. As a result of the historic flooding, the facility temporarily shut down in May due to expansive property damage. However, officials eagerly hope to reopen in 2020.
“Right now, we’re kind of shooting for opening in February,” said Delta Rivers Nature Center facility director Jason Hooks. “But, we’re taking it week-by-week and seeing how much we get done. Obviously, we’d like to open as soon as we can, but we also want to make sure that we’re not creating conflict between construction work and the public and visitors coming in.”
The grounds of the Nature Center have flooded before, but not to the extent of what happened in May. Heavy rains caused the Arkansas River to swel,l thus creating flooding across the state including Pine Bluff and Jefferson County and forcing people to evacuate communities. The flooding left widespread damage, according to city and county officials in the state.
“All of our buildings are on different kind of elevations, so some buildings we had maybe a foot and a half to two feet of water, like in our classroom,” said Hooks. “It’s up on stilts, but water did get in it and our shop is about the same.”
Multiple buildings were impacted during the floods.
“We also had several storage buildings and a greenhouse that had water in them,” he said. “The greenhouse probably had six feet of water, just because it sits lower. Our main exhibit hall didn’t get water inside the building. But, we had water in our insulation under the building and a lot of our electrical lines and conduit under the building had water sitting on it.”
For Hooks, it was a sight to see, as it was his first time witnessing such a scene.
“It was pretty amazing to me,” he said. “I’ve never experienced flooding before. So, it was my first time to see it. It was hard, because it was our place that we work and show up [to] everyday.”
Hooks says it’s too early too tell how much the damage will cost the Nature Center. But, they’ve already received estimates to begin the repair process.
“We’ve got several bids that are open for contractors to come in and work on some of our electrical problems and plumbing problems,” he said. “We sustained quite a bit of damage to really all of our facilities out here, all our different buildings and some of them require more work than others. Our classroom received quite a bit of damage, so we’re working to get some contractors. We pretty much had to gut it, so we’re going to have to completely redo the inside of it.”
Back in June, volunteers were invited to help clean up the trail. But, after the river rose again, Hooks canceled the event.
“Once we kind of got in and started accessing the damages and saw how long it was going to take to make the repairs, we thought we’d just put that off until we got a little bit closer to opening and then maybe have the public come back out and help us then,” he said.
Knowing there’s a chance of the center flooding again in the future, Hook admits they are currently working to find better ways to prepare for it.
“… In our plans of rebuilding, we’re trying to look at ways and materials we can use that are going to be more flood resistant,” he said. “I think we did fairly well this time in preparing for it the best that we could. But, with the water levels that we had, there’s no way to keep water out of those buildings.”
Even though water got into some of their buildings, Hooks says there exist no signs of mold based on multiple test results. However, it’s something he admits will be monitored continuously.
With the closure, the center didn’t host one of their biggest events—- Boo on the Bayou. The family-friendly event introduced more than 15 years ago attracts thousands from near and far.
“We lost all of the props, games and things that we use for that event,” Hooks said. “So, moving forward, that event will probably change some. We’re still looking to do something about the same time of the year that’s open to families, but maybe do a one-day event and do something during the day to get people to come into the Nature Center to see all of our exhibits and what we do inside as well.”
Every animal was moved offsite with some going to volunteers, workers or other facilities, according to Hooks. Most of the animals will return once the center is back open, but the “birds of prey” will continue to stay at the Raptor Rehab of Central Arkansas.
“Our snakes and our amphibians, we’ll be able to get all of those back in,” Hooks said. “Their enclosures and habitats didn’t receive any damage. But, our birds, we did have quite a bit of damage to their enclosures. So, we’re going to have to rebuild those. So, it may be some time before we get those back.”
In addition to repairing the damages, Hooks and his team are also working on some improvements to the center grounds to make it a better experience for guests.
“We’re ready to get back into the groove and have visitors come see us,” he said.