Gov. Hutchinson seeks federal support in ‘flood of historic magnitude’

by Steve Brawner (BRAWNERSTEVE@MAC.COM) 405 views 

Marty Shell, president of Van Buren-based Five Rivers Distribution, which manages the port of Fort Smith and has port operations in Van Buren, watches as rising waters threaten to overtake a loading-offloading facility in Van Buren.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson is asking federal agencies for direct support and will tour flooded areas with members of the state’s congressional delegation Thursday, he said in a press conference Wednesday (May 29).

Describing the devastation that has already occurred and is yet to come, Hutchinson said, “This is a flood of historic magnitude. It surpasses all Arkansas River flooding in our recorded history.”

Hutchinson said he has signed a second emergency proclamation raising the state’s total contribution to $350,000 at the request of the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management (ADEM).

On Tuesday, he received a phone call from President Trump, who Hutchinson said offered his full support. Hutchinson said he briefed Trump on the situation. Then on Wednesday, Hutchinson formalized his communication in a letter to Trump asking for direct support from federal agencies. That letter sets the stage for a presidential declaration.

Hutchinson said federal assistance could be provided to individual homes and businesses. Also needed is 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 levee system is strained to the limit, and while it is holding in most areas, there are breeches and overflows that we are watching very carefully,” he said.

Hutchinson said the Arkansas River will rise another 2-4 feet in the coming days and in some places has already topped levees. Rivers, creeks and bayous that normally would flow into the river are now going the other direction, and it’s difficult to know where the water will go.

“That is the unknown, and I know that the Corps of Engineers has been very helpful in [its] modeling and helping to see it, but nobody’s done this before, and nobody’s experienced this before,” he said. “So that’s what you worry about – what other homes, what other neighborhoods, what other business will be impacted?”

Hutchinson said the Corps of Engineers needs to evaluate if the levees should be strengthened and raised. After flooding in 2016, the state invested in levees in Perry County that are doing well, he said.

Hutchinson said the Fort Smith and Van Buren areas are the most immediately impacted. On Thursday, he will conduct an aerial assessment along with Sen. John Boozman and Reps. Steve Womack, French Hill and Bruce Westerman.

He urged the public to heed calls by officials to evacuate, to respect barriers, to pay attention to developments, and to pray for good weather. More than 400 homes have been evacuated voluntarily. Arkansas National Guard’s adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Mark Berry, said one person had died after ignoring a barrier. Citations are being issued for violations.

Hutchinson said he had just returned Wednesday from Toad Suck, where the lock and dam is under water and traffic is blocked from Faulkner County into Perry County. He inspected the levee and watched work being done to strengthen it.

Hutchinson said more than 12 state highways have been closed, while others have been closed at the county level.

Berry said about 60 National Guard members are deployed. Deployments will continue, but they could change as the needs change, and the troops will follow the need as it moves down the river. Two National Guard high water rescue teams have been activated and the state has been provided assets by Missouri and Tennessee. The Arkansas Air National Guard’s 188th Air Wing has been providing satellite imagery.

Hutchinson said members of the National Guard could be used to prevent looting, though he said, “I expect the people of Arkansas to behave well.” He praised Arkansans for helping neighbors protect their houses.

Lorie Tudor, Arkansas Department of Transportation deputy director, said Arkansans should check road conditions at IDrive Arkansas. The service is available through an app or at www.idrivearkansas.com.

ADEM Director A.J. Gary said his agency’s emergency operations center will be fully activated for the next two weeks.

“It’s going to be a long event,” he said. “We have a lot of our levees that are going to be under extreme pressure for a long period of time. And as the governor stated, there’s a lot of unknowns, and we don’t know if those levees will hold, and we really want to stress that people in those communities communicate with their local emergency management, their county, pay attention to what’s going on, and if they’re anywhere near the river, they need to get away from it.”

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