Fort Smith chamber working to coordinate flood response efforts

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,508 views 

(from left) Marty Shell, president and CEO of Van Buren-based Five Rivers Distribution, visits with U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., Monday (May 27) during a flood response at the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Coordinating through various means of communication and communicating how best to coordinate people, resources, information, and needs was the focus of two meetings of more than 50 Fort Smith area political, business and emergency management officials held at the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce.

As of Sunday, record flooding along the Arkansas River covered more than 2,100 parcels of land flooding more than 500 homes and businesses in Fort Smith alone. At least 300 people have been displaced according to city of Fort Smith officials, and more than 140,000 sandbags have been used to prevent flooding, according to the Sebastian County Department of Emergency Management.

The Arkansas Department of Transportation late Monday (May 27) announced the closure of the Interstate 540 bridge and the Midland Bridge between Fort Smith and Van Buren. Port operations in Fort Smith and Van Buren are already underwater, and ports downstream are likely to flood or be closed.

And the flooding has yet to peak.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is predicting the Arkansas River in the Fort Smith area will crest Tuesday at 42.5 feet, well above the flood stage of 22 feet and above the area record of 38.1 feet. As of 4 p.m. Monday, the level was 39.8 feet. River flows were at 501,899 cubic feet per second (cfs) as of 5 p.m. Monday, up 4.5% from the 480,355 cfs at midnight.

The Arkansas River system (McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, or MKARNS) is 445 miles long and stretches from the confluence of the Mississippi River to the Port of Catoosa near Tulsa, Okla. The controlled waterway has 18 locks and dams, with 13 in Arkansas and five in Oklahoma. The river also has five ports: Pine Bluff, Little Rock, Fort Smith, Muskogee, Okla., and the Tulsa Port of Catoosa in Oklahoma.

Rain expected Tuesday and Wednesday in Oklahoma and western Arkansas could cause flash flooding, but is not expected to push the estimated flood crest higher, Major Wade Welsh, deputy commander of the Little Rock District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, told U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., and U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers. However, Welsh said the rains will result in the flooding peak to remain longer.

Boozman and Womack were in Fort Smith Monday meeting with civic and business leaders and touring flooded areas. They gathered at 3 p.m. at the Fort Smith chamber to hear from more than 50 people involved in responding to the flood. The first meeting was held Sunday.

“It may not be the best strategy, but it’s a strategy,” Chamber President and CEO Tim Allen said about efforts to coordinate resources with needs and to avoid the duplication of resources.

Allen told Talk Business & Politics the flooding is also an economic development issue, with the chamber obligated to do whatever it can to help the employees who keep Fort Smith area businesses operating.

“We’re looking at maybe thousands of people directly in the flooding, or unable to get to their work, or not being able to work because where they work is underwater,” he said.

Some of those people work for Marty Shell, president and CEO of Van Buren-based Five Rivers Distribution, which manages port operations in Van Buren and the Port of Fort Smith. Shell addressed Boozman and Womack Monday saying he’s facing up to $4 million in losses from the flooding, “but more importantly, I have 17 families” who depend on a paycheck. He urged Boozman and Womack to work with federal and state officials to do whatever they can to help businesses keep people paid.

“We have to take care of the people who take care of us … and do it as quickly as possible,” said Shell, who believes the flood stage could rise above 42.5.

Womack told Shell there are various federal funding sources to help businesses make payroll, and his office will do all they can to expedite the process.

The city issued the following data Monday evening about the flooding impact.
• 940 total parcels of all classification (e.g. residential, commercial, industrial, etc.)
• 640 parcels attributed by the Sebastian County Assessor as residential
• 941 total structures (e.g. houses, sheds, detached garages, offices, retail, factories, etc.)
• Approximately 26 miles of streets/roads/highways in the city are within or partially within the anticipated inundation areas.

Helping the displaced is also part of an effort to provide meals. Fort Smith-based OK Foods, which provides emergency meal services to natural disasters around the country, is leading a plan to provide up to 5,000 meals a day by Tuesday, with the capacity of 10,000 meals a day later in the week. OK Foods President Trent Goins said several area businesses will also set up a “food hub” in downtown Fort Smith, with volunteers and coordination needed to take prepared meals from the hub to distribution centers around the city. Cooking will begin 8 a.m. Tuesday, with lunches ready by noon and dinners ready no later than 7 p.m., each day.

“We won’t have the people in this area that are displaced go hungry. That’s the last thing we want to see happen,” Goins said during the Monday meeting.

Travis Cooper, deputy director of the Sebastian County Department of Emergency Management, said area charities and the Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster will help coordinate the distribution of meals. Cooper estimated that around 140 volunteers would need to be coordinated for that effort.

Cooper also said there have been at least 700 people volunteer in the region, noting that the number of volunteers is a reflection of “good that is happening” in the region to respond to the natural disaster. Mitzy Little, with the United Way of Fort Smith Area, said the agency has on their website a page where people can volunteer or give money. Little said people can also text Flood2019 to 91999 to donate, with the donations directed only toward flood response efforts.

Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken said the city is working to coordinate with residents in flooded areas about what to do to prepare and how to respond once a residence or business is flooded. He also said the Fort Smith Police Department is on “emergency recall” to patrol flooded areas, to “curtail gawkers,” and arrest those who steal sandbags.

Boozman and Womack praised the chamber’s broad coordination and response effort. Womack said his time as the mayor of Rogers taught him that emergencies require the “consolidation of information” so that it can be captured and disseminated between those who can help and those who need help. He also advised the group to make sure there are good plans to use volunteers because volunteers will not return if their first experience was frustrating.

“This could be a several weeks adventure for this area … so how do we gear up for a one-week, two-week, three-week response,” he said.

Boozman said what is happening in Crawford and Sebastian counties could be a template for what cities and counties down the river will face. He also encouraged officials to contact their office to cut through bureaucracy.

“Let us help you in cutting through the red tape.”