Floodwaters topped the primary earthen levee along the Black River in Pocahontas Tuesday, swamping the city’s eastern side. U.S. 67 connecting the city to points east has been shutdown, and a slew of businesses including the town’s Walmart Supercenter and McDonald’s were inundated by water in the early afternoon.
The river is now predicted to crest at 31.5-feet, more than three feet higher than the all-time record set in 2011 when the town was decimated by floodwaters. Officials have kept a wary eye on an Arkansas Highway and Transportation construction barge near the U.S. 67 bridge.
AHTD officials told Randolph County Judge David Jansen the barge is tightly secured. If the barge were to turn loose in the swirling waters, it could damage or destroy piers on the old bridge that is still in use. If the bridge were significantly damaged or destroyed, it would make the worst flood in Randolph County history even more damaging, Jansen said.
“They say it’s secure, so we will have to wait and see,” the judge said. “Right now, our focus is on saving lives and keeping our people safe.”
Jansen doesn’t think the river will crest at 31.5-feet for one ominous reason. As water rushes over the levee it will degrade and breaches or holes will form. More water will be released and it should help stabilize the water levels, but that means the water will envelop the surrounding area, he said. There are more than 100 county roads under water and the damage is impossible to estimate at this juncture, he said.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson visited the region Tuesday. He toured flooded areas in Randolph, Sharp, and Lawrence counties, according to information released by his office. He encouraged residents in the flood’s path to heed warnings and evacuate.
“There is no reason to put first responders in danger,” A.J. Gary, director of the Department of Emergency Management said. “We can’t stress enough the importance for people to evacuate.”
Randolph County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tim Scott 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 if those businesses aren’t in the direct path of water, customers cannot get out to shop or work, and that will devastate the local economy. He owns a local radio station, and the water has risen five feet in his own building.
“Who can fathom what we are going through right now?” Scott asked rhetorically. “If you would have told me I’d be off the air for a week because of a flood, I’d tell you that you were nuts. It happened in 2011, and it could happen again now. This will probably be much worse than 2011.”
The area’s largest employer, Peco Foods will likely be shut down for at least several days, Scott said. 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, he said. A lot of production has been moved to the company’s Batesville plant. The Pocahontas processing plant sits on a plain not far from the levee. The plant itself was built on higher ground, but Scott doesn’t know if that will keep the waters away. Attempts to reach Peco officials have been unsuccessful.
If the plant were down for an extended period, it would result in millions of dollars in lost wages. How the company will deal with these issues is uncertain. Even if the plant isn’t flooded, it sits on U.S. 67 and the last flood shut the highway down for more than a week, meaning workers couldn’t get to work even if they wanted, he said.
At least 300 people have been evacuated from eastern Pocahontas, according to official estimates. About 150 homes have received some damage and the numbers are expected to rise. Along Pace Road, one of the hardest hit areas, the state unemployment office, the county jail and the state health department office are located. Scott said those buildings will receive significant damage.
More bad news may be on the way in the form of more rain. The National Weather Service is predicting showers for Wednesday and possibly Thursday. It will also rain in southern Missouri, the source of the flood waters on the Black River. What will happen once the waters flow south is anybody’s guess. In 2011, communities throughout Northeast Arkansas were damaged or destroyed by floods that started along the Black River in Pocahontas, and the cleanup took years and the economic impact was hundreds of millions of dollars.
Jansen has dealt with his share of natural catastrophes. Before the record floods in 2011, the county had a near record flood in 2008 that swamped many parts of Pocahontas. A once in a generation ice storm paralyzed the county and surrounding counties in 2009. Many were without power for weeks after the entire electrical grid was damaged by heavy ice accumulations.
“It’s going to be a record, that’s all I can say,” Jansen said. “We can’t control mother nature.”