It may seem a distant memory, but scars from the extensive flooding along the Arkansas River last May and June are still apparent at Gov. Mike Huckabee Delta Rivers Nature Center, a favorite destination for school groups and visitors to Pine Bluff.
Although it has been closed since May due to flood damage, officials anticipate the nature center to be reopened in time for spring break, according to the Feb. 19 edition of the Arkansas Wildlife Weekly Newsletter.
Even though last year’s flood was historic in scale, the main building was mostly spared because it is elevated on piers. The surrounding buildings used for classrooms and exhibit areas did not fare as well.
“The original estimate of damages from our insurance company was about $200,000, but that didn’t include some of the things we found later,” said Jason Hooks, DRNC facility director for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
“It didn’t meet the deductible of $500,000 for building damages or $500,000 for equipment loss, but if you total everything damaged and lost and include the needed upgrades we’re looking at, it will take somewhere around $600,000 to get us back on track,” he said.
Hooks says a major area that was hit was the center’s classroom. About 18 inches of water got into the building, requiring it to be completely gutted.
“The insulation, electrical, drywall and floor all required replacement,” Hooks said. “And the heating and air unit had to be replaced because it was completely submerged and ruined as well.”
The main exhibit area was safe from the water, but not its underside. According to Hooks, the water reached high enough underneath the building that insulation and electrical conduit there also had to be replaced. Additionally, the pumps that keep oxygenated water flowing in the center’s centerpiece aquarium were completely submerged and destroyed from the floodwater.
The center’s eagle-viewing exhibit and Bird Barn saw extensive damage as well, with the Bird Barn having to be demolished. Thanks to Rodney Paul, owner of Raptor Rehab of Central Arkansas, the birds have a temporary home until new facilities can be constructed.
“Rodney has always been a friend to us and his help with giving our birds a place to stay during the rebuild has been a Godsend,” Hooks said. “We’re paying for food, but he has donated all of the space and time it takes to manage birds like this at his place for now. It takes a lot of space to house all the program birds we use in presentations: owls, hawks, vultures, and three bald eagles.”
Hooks says one bright note to the renovation is that it will give the center the opportunity to redesign the eagle-viewing exhibit and rebuild the Bird Barn. The new Bird Barn will allow visitors to see the other raptors which were not on exhibit before. We are also making changes to some of the buildings to protect us against flood damages in the future.
Other major damage occurred elsewhere on the nature center’s grounds. Three outbuildings were completely destroyed when they were put under 5 to 6 feet of water — two small utility buildings and a substantial greenhouse that was used to prepare and hold native plants for programs and the center’s landscaping.
“The greenhouse was about 30 feet by 50 feet, so it was a pretty big loss,” Hooks said. “We also lost a 200-foot section of the boardwalk that led to a watchable wildlife observation station. The water floated the entire section, piers and all, out of the ground.”
Outdoor electrical outlets, remotely operated gates and concrete repairs also take up considerable room on Hooks’ to-do list, all of which must come straight from the AGFC’s capital funds.
“We’ve done a lot of painting and maintenance in the lobby, gift shop, and lab ourselves to help keep costs down, but there’s no avoiding the big price tag flood damage brings,” Hooks said. “And that’s not even counting the loss of equipment and supplies. Although we moved or elevated some of our equipment and supplies during the flood, the water did get to some of it. We lost some of the things we had from years of doing events like Boo on the Bayou. Some items will be replaced as funds become available.”
Hooks anticipates the nature center to be reopened in time for spring break, which is just over one month away. Although some features such as the aquarium and raptor exhibits will not be completed by then, they should be able to host programs at the main facility again by that time.
“We have one class scheduled for the classroom so far, and if it’s not ready, we’ll make some adjustments to put on the show,” Hooks said. “We’ve always done a lot of onsite presentations at schools and other locations, so we will just adapt to deliver our conservation message as best we can until the center is at full speed again.”
— Randy Zellers is the assistant chief of communications at the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.