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story.lead_photo.caption Flooding is seen in Pocahontas Wednesday morning. - Photo by Stephen B. Thornton

3:30 P.M. UPDATE:

Additional resources have been authorized to respond to deadly flooding in northeast Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Wednesday afternoon.

Nine levee breaches have been identified in Randolph County, three of which have been categorized as “major,” the governor told reporters during a news conference at the state Capitol.

The governor noted that 108 Arkansas National Guardsmen had been deployed to the areas of primary concern.

Twenty-five National Guard vehicles are also prepared for high-water rescue efforts in the northeast corner of the state.

“My admonition to the public, particularly in northeast Arkansas, is to listen to the local authorities, and if they order evacuation, that you do so quickly,” the governor said.

An evacuation order was issued Monday for residents in the eastern portion of Pocahontas.

More than 500 evacuations have been carried out since the start of dangerous flooding in the northeast corner of the state, and particularly in Randolph County, Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson said four high-water teams have been sent out to the affected areas, including 70 personnel involved in security and traffic control.

“These are necessary as the areas might be evacuated as a result of a mandatory order,” he said.

The Arkansas State Police are also playing a “significant” role in ongoing emergency response efforts. Twenty-three employees with the agency are part of search and recovery, the governor said.

Seven people have died and a child is still missing as a result of the recent weather, according to authorities.

Check back for updates and read Thursday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full details.

— Brandon Riddle

EARLIER STORY:

A levee on the water-logged Black River that experienced record levels of rain in northeastern Arkansas gave way Wednesday morning, causing a flash flood emergency for people in the area, weather officials said.

The levee near the town of Pocahontas in Randolph County was breached, the National Weather Service of Little Rock said shortly before 8:40 a.m.

That area was said by the agency to be in a flash flood emergency with life-threatening flooding likely.

At 7 p.m. Tuesday, the Black River level was 29.1 feet, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported. Levees in that area of the river are reportedly built to withstand 28 feet.

Flooding in Arkansas


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Several water rescues had been performed by 9:45 a.m. just south of Pocahontas in Shannon near the intersection of U.S. 67 and Arkansas 90, the National Weather Service of Memphis said on Twitter.

So far, there have been nine breaches along the earthen levee structure, said Elmo Webb, the levee safety program manager for the Army Corps of Engineers Little Rock District. Webb said the levee was overtopped, which caused the breach.

He drove from Paragould to inspect the Pocahontas flooding but was unable to find a way into town due to the “tremendous amount of water” unleashed by the levee, Webb said. He'd inspected the structure before Wednesday morning and agreed with other forecasters that the breach was imminent due to the record-setting rain, he said.

Eventually, “the only thing any of us could do was just sit there and watch,” Webb said.

As of 11:30 a.m., the river is gushing at 80,640 cubic feet per second, which is not its peak, an Army Corps spokeswoman said. Niagara Falls generally flows at 84,000 cubic feet per second, she added.

Typically when earthen levees fail, it means water got too heavy and washed out part or parts of the structure, said Dennis Cavanaugh with the National Weather Service in Little Rock.

The breach “hasn’t happened before," he said.

"So we don’t know what’s going to happen," he said. "The main concern is that the east side of Pocahontas; it’s already flooding, but it will receive even more flooding.”

The levee failure will “put a lot of water where it’s not supposed to be,” Cavanaugh said.

At least seven deaths have been attributed to weekend storms that brought 6 to 8 inches of rain to northern Arkansas and high levels of precipitation to much of the state.

Officials earlier predicted the collapse of the levee would send a "wall of water" toward neighboring Lawrence County.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson surveyed flooding damage in northeast Arkansas on Tuesday and previously declared a statewide disaster.

The governor sent multiple Arkansas National Guard units to the area and told the state Department of Correction to use inmate labor to load and stack sandbags, spokesman J.R. Davis said in an email. Hutchinson has eyes on the ground to track Wednesday’s developments and is in “constant contact” with both local and state disaster officials as well as the Arkansas State Police, Davis wrote.

An evacuation order was issued Monday for the eastern portion of Pocahontas, which includes about 150 homes, an assisted-living apartment complex and many businesses. Most people left by Tuesday, but a few residents reportedly opted to stay in their homes.

The city set up a shelter at the Old Community Center Nursing Home on Hospital Drive for anyone displaced by the flooding, and the unit has housed anywhere from 30 to 36 people since the evacuation order was issued, volunteer Marti Little said.

Most of the people seeking refuge are elderly with medical problems, so staff members are searching for nurses or nursing students to volunteer overnight, Little said. Emergency responders are updating a list of needs on the city of Pocahontas’ website, as they will likely change day by day, Little said.

Currently, the items people need the most are snacks for diabetics, sweatpants, T-shirts, women’s undergarments, disposable thermometers and laundry baskets.

The shelter will also donate items to community members who aren’t staying at the converted nursing home but need goods because local stores and roadways are closing, Little said.

“We’re getting cut off from the rest of the world,” Little said.

The shelter can be reached at (870) 810-8003.

The breached levee was constructed in 1938 and is a "federal levee," meaning it was built or designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Webb said. The federal agency then transferred control to the local levee board, though the Army Corps still inspects the structure about once every two years, he said.

The structure was originally designed as an agricultural levee made for a "100-year event," Webb said. That designation means the levee had a one in 100 chance of overtopping in any given year, he said.

If a levee had been deemed acceptable or minimally acceptable by the Corps before it fails, the agency will rebuild it to pre-flood conditions, Webb said.

The Randolph County levee qualifies, so the Army Corps can repair it back to its constructed height of 28 feet, Webb said. Local government will have to pay for anything higher, he said.

— Emma Pettit

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Comments

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  • MaxCady
    May 3, 2017 at 9:41 a.m.

    What a mess!

  • Shoe
    May 3, 2017 at 9:56 a.m.

    Are there people on a levee board or commission drawing a check for overseeing the maintenance of levees? I know there were in years past. Not sure anymore.

  • BirdDogsRock
    May 3, 2017 at 10:40 a.m.

    "The levee failure will “put a lot of water where it’s not supposed to be"..."
    WRONG. The levee was built to keep water out of where it's supposed to be. The levee gave people false assurance that the water would stay out of where it's supposed to be, encouraging people to build in those same places where the water is supposed to be. I feel sorry for the people whose homes and lives are being harmed and I wish them well, but building in a floodplain is an inherently risky activity.

  • hah406
    May 3, 2017 at 11:14 a.m.

    Everyone remember this levee was built to hold back 28 foot waters. The river is above 29 feet and rising. It simply was not designed for this much water. So pump the brakes on blaming anyone there! This is simply an act of God and Mother Nature.

  • RBBrittain
    May 3, 2017 at 11:15 a.m.

    Maybe this flood will have to wipe out a state senator's land, like the one in Perry County a few years back that flooded Jason Rapert's farm. That should get the levee boards back into action.
    .
    And though BirdDogsRock has a point, the whole purpose of the levee was to make the water NOT go there; if we just left things to Mother Nature, much of east Arkansas (i.e., nearly everything between the Mississippi & St. Francis Rivers) would be too flood-prone to be inhabitable. The real problem is there's more water going thru there than the levee system assumed; no amount of maintenance can prevent a levee from failing when Mother Nature throws more water at it than it was designed to hold.

  • RBBrittain
    May 3, 2017 at 2:24 p.m.

    The last couple of paragraphs were added after I started my comment, but they sorta reinforced my point: The levee was NOT improperly maintained; it failed because THIS flood was higher than the levee's designed capacity. There could be other issues behind that, from inaccurate flood modeling to poor city planning (Walmart certainly wishes they had built elsewhere in Pocahontas right about now) to, yes, even climate change; it will take awhile to figure all that out.

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