U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue took an aerial tour Sunday over flood-ravaged Northeast Arkansas. Perdue promised the federal government would provide resources to help residents and farmers put their lives back in order.
“The president asked me to come down and take a look … I was happy to do it,” Perdue said.
The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture estimates there could be at least $64.5 million worth of crop losses already. That number could grow as flood waters move south and east in the region. At least 10% of Arkansas’ rice crop could be lost. An estimated 100,000 rice acres have probably been destroyed or significantly impacted and that number is expected to rise.
Arkansas farmers planted an estimated 1.2 million rice acres this spring. One of the key differences between the last epic flood to hit the state in 2011 and now is the timing. About 45% of the rice crop was in the ground when the levee system in Pocahontas ruptured six years ago, and widespread flooding occurred throughout the Mississippi Delta Region. This year, 89% of the rice crop has already been planted.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, and U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Little Rock, were among those who accompanied Perdue on the tour. Crawford was reportedly a candidate for the Agriculture Secretary post Perdue was given by President Donald Trump.
There has been $21 million worth of damage done to businesses and that number is expected to climb, the governor said. At least nine people have lost their lives as a result of the floods and nothing can replace those losses, he added.
Hutchinson said the state’s damage assessment process will begin Wednesday (May 10). A federal disaster declaration, one that would allow for federal resources to be used by individuals, business owners, governmental entities, and farmers, is based on the assessment. When asked by Talk Business & Politics how long it will take, Perdue said it was in the state’s control at this point. Once the assessment is complete, Perdue said he would “expedite the process” to help those impacted.
What resources will be doled out will be determined by the extent of the damage, Perdue said. Farmers are likely to receive low interest loans as one option, he said.
This is one of Perdue’s first trips in his Agriculture Secretary role and Crawford said he was thankful Perdue has the job. Crawford noted that Perdue is a farmer and is from the south. Many in control of agriculture policy in Washington D.C. are from Midwestern states, he said.
“He’s a farmer. He speaks our language,” Crawford said.
Floodwaters topped the primary earthen levee along the Black River in Pocahontas Tuesday (May 2), swamping the city’s eastern side. More than 300 people had to be evacuated. At least 50 homes were destroyed, and another 150 were damaged. U.S. 67 connecting the city to points east had to be be shutdown and a slew of businesses including the town’s Walmart Supercenter and McDonald’s were inundated by water.
The river crested at nearly 30-feet, more than a foot higher than the all-time record set in 2011 when the town was decimated by flood waters. U.S. 63 near Portia was shutdown for almost two days. It’s the main highway artery connecting NEA with Northcentral Arkansas. U.S. 67 between Pocahontas and Walnut Ridge remains closed because of flood waters and there have been reports the highway may have been damaged as a result of the floods.
Randolph County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tim Scott previously told Talk Business & Politics the economic impact will be “astronomical.” There are more than 500 businesses in Pocahontas and the surrounding county, and virtually all will be affected by the floods. Even those businesses not flooded lost a week of business and many were out of work.
The area’s largest employer, Peco Foods has been closed for several days. It employs about 1,000 workers and the company needs several hundred more. Each day the plant processes 200,000 chickens, or about 1.4 million per week, Scott said. Its primary customer is Buffalo Wild Wings. Peco officials announced through social media that workers would be paid for the time off.
Perdue said he couldn’t “wave a magic wand” to fix the damage caused in the Natural State. But, he’s familiar with the strife that comes with rising waters. Witnessing the devastation with his own eyes will make it easier for him to convince Trump and other agencies to allocate more resources to the state, he said.
“I know the thrill of a great crop, and the despair of a flood,” he said.