Gov. Hutchinson: Arkansas will face historic flooding aftermath ‘for some time’

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,131 views 

Gov. Asa Hutchinson (right) on Thursday (May 30) receives information about Arkansas River flooding prior to an afternoon press conference held on the Garrison Avenue bridge in downtown Fort Smith.

Flooded port operations in Fort Smith and Van Buren managed by Five Rivers Distribution meant at least 17 families would face several weeks or months without a paycheck. But the response by Trent Goins, CEO of Fort Smith-based OK Foods, is just one example of the “amazing” community response to the historic flooding, said U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers.

Womack, along with Gov. Asa Hutchinson, U.S. Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, on Thursday (May 30) took an aerial tour of flooded areas including record flooding at Toad Suck, Dardanelle, Ozark, Trimble Lock and Dam, Van Buren and Fort Smith.

During a flood response meeting Monday at the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, Five Rivers owner Marty Shell told Boozman and Womack Monday he’s facing up to $4 million in losses from the flooding, “but more importantly, I have 17 families” who depend on a paycheck.

Goins, who was at the meeting, decided to help the Five Rivers employees by offering them jobs until the port operations return. Womack praised Goins and the many other actions of neighbors helping neighbors by filling sandbags, opening homes or providing food for those who have been displaced.

“You can see it from the air, and that’s fine, but when you travel to these homes, these neighborhoods and see firsthand what these people are dealing with … that’s when you really get the full impact,” Womack told Talk Business & Politics.

Gov. Hutchinson told Fort Smith area business leaders during a Thursday press conference held on the closed Garrison Avenue bridge connecting Arkansas and Oklahoma that the state would provide what is needed to help cities deal with the destruction caused by the historic flooding of the Arkansas River.

Record flooding along the Arkansas River (McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, or MKARNS) has covered more than 2,100 parcels of land, flooding more than 500 homes and businesses in Fort Smith alone. Five Rivers Distribution in Van Buren is underwater, Hutchinson noted, and the floods have stopped commercial barge traffic on the Arkansas River at a cost of $23 million a day to the state’s GDP.

“It is important for me to be here in Fort Smith and Van Buren,” Hutchinson said during a news conference, with the fast-moving and swollen river providing a backdrop. “As I flew over today, the most significant impression I had is that it is hard to imagine the magnitude of the flooding. It is difficult to comprehend.”

The governor discussed the devastation on more than 500 homes and many, many businesses affected.

“But one of the greatest impacts we have seen is in the farmland that has been flooded. Thousands of acres,” Hutchinson said, noting it is unclear what kind of impact on the state’s economy the loss of crops will have.

Hutchinson on Wednesday (May 29) increased state emergency funding to $350,000, up from $100,000 already approved, to help flooding efforts.

“We will put what is needed in action to make sure that our local communities have the support they need,” Hutchinson said Thursday to applause.

“We will need federal assistance in this,” Hutchinson said, but called for patience. “It’s not going to happen tomorrow or the next day. It takes time to be able to make the damage assessments and put them into place so that we may ask for the appropriate level of federal funding.”

On Wednesday, Hutchinson formalized his request for federal assistance in a letter to President Donald Trump asking for direct support from federal agencies. That letter sets the stage for a presidential declaration. Boozman and Cotton – along with U.S. Reps. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, French Hill, R-Little Rock, and Westerman and Womack – sent a letter to Trump and administration officials urging them to support Hutchinson’s request for a federal disaster declaration.

Womack said a federal relief funding bill should pass early next week. Hutchinson said he talked to President Trump and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is on the ground and will be a part of a flood assessment team when the water recedes. Hutchinson said federal assistance could be provided to individual homes and businesses. River infrastructure is also in need of mitigation assistance. He said the state’s levee system constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is doing well but is not built for the level of flooding the models predict.

“[The water is] here now. It’s going to be going to Dardanelle. It’s going to be going down the river to Morrilton and to Little Rock and on to the farm country beyond. We will be dealing with this for some time,” the governor said. “I hope the water will recede quickly, though we know it will be here for some time.”

The river crested Wednesday morning in the Fort Smith area at 40.26 feet, surpassing the all-time highest river level of 38.1 feet set in May 1945. At 4 p.m. Thursday, the river was at 40.09 feet and is expected to crest again around midnight at 40.5 feet, according to the National Weather Service.