Federal Emergency Management Agency representatives told Arkansas officials Tuesday that the agency is awaiting federal government approval of a public-assistance request that would help cities and counties cover the cost of overtime and infrastructure repairs related to recent flooding along the Arkansas River.
Agency officials updated U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and local-level emergency management officials during Cotton's visit to flood-damaged areas in Arkansas.
Cotton's stops included a tour of the Lollie Levee in Conway, the Faulkner County Disaster Recovery Center in Mayflower, the Arkansas State/Federal Joint Field Office in Little Rock and the Don Reynolds Center in Pine Bluff.
Scott Thomas, a FEMA federal coordinating officer, said a request for assistance for counties and cities has been submitted, and officials expect an answer within a few days.
"This would be used to address some of the concerns on overtime and help jump-start some of the recovery projects," he said.
More than $7 million has been disbursed already for individual assistance, Thomas said.
"This is only for homeowners," he said. "We are giving about $7,000 to $8,000 to individuals, which is about the average."
Cotton expressed concern during the stops that mayors and county officials wouldn't be able to handle the cost of overtime accrued because of flooding or infrastructure repairs without the federal assistance.
"I have talked to many officials who don't know how they are going to be able to keep going with all the overtime they have to pay out," Cotton said.
Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington said she shared the senator's concerns.
"We also have the cleaning efforts and overtime for officers and street [department]," Washington said. "We don't have a dollar estimate on it."
Once public assistance is approved, it will be up to local officials to submit the necessary information to the agency, according to Jodi Lee, deputy state coordinating officer for the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management.
"We will have applicant briefings, and hopefully everyone attends," Lee said.
Heavy rainfall in Kansas and Oklahoma led the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release water from reservoirs in both states that eventually made its way downriver and into Arkansas, leading to severe flooding throughout the Arkansas River Valley. Hundreds of homes and businesses were flooded as the water worked its way from western Arkansas through central Arkansas and into the southeastern part of the state.
FIRST STOP LOLLIE LEVEE
On June 8, President Donald Trump approved Gov. Asa Hutchinson's request to declare a major disaster in Arkansas. Approval came less than 24 hours after the governor made the request for federal aid to meet the housing and business needs across Conway, Crawford, Faulkner, Jefferson, Perry, Pulaski, Sebastian and Yell counties.
FEMA has opened 10 disaster recovery centers since then, along with a joint state and federal field office in Little Rock in a building near Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport/Adams Field.Gallery: May-June flooding in Arkansas
Cotton's first stop Tuesday was at the Lollie Levee, which was threatened in early June when high water began to erode the structure that protected Lollie Bottoms. Authorities become so concerned about it breaching that they advised residents to evacuate and rushed to build a temporary, 20-foot-tall dam covered in plastic to protect the levee.
The levee held, but farmer Joe Thrash said the evacuation caused some farmers to lose precious time.
"We had to move 70 head of cattle and our equipment to higher ground," Thrash said. "It has pushed us way late. We are just now getting started with some of the planting process."
Thrash usually plants rice, corn and soybeans, but he will be limited to planting only about half of his farm this year and will plant only soybeans.
"It's just too late," he said.
The river level has gone down, and the area around the levee has returned to dirt and mud, and resembles a large puddle.
"It's amazing that it held," Cotton said while looking at a cavernous space carved out of the dirt levee.
Temporary repairs on the 90-year-old levee are complete, said Jonathan Palmer, a civil engineer for the Corps of Engineers. It could take a month and a half or longer for the levee to be fully restored once construction begins, Palmer said.
The Corps of Engineers will pay for 100% of the repairs.
LOT OF WORK AHEAD
Jim Marple, an emergency management planner with the Corps of Engineers in Little Rock, said the Corps has a lot of levee work ahead.
"We have around eight to 10 levees up for repairs," Marple said. "This includes the Lollie Levee."
The time frame for repairs will depend on when funding is approved.
"The Tulsa, Kansas and Missouri districts have also been impacted, so the dollars could be thin," Marple said.
Thrash, a levee board member, said the levee district routinely maintained the Lollie Levee.
"The levee board contracts a contractor to come out here and keep it maintained," Thrash said. "I can say I am glad we are in compliance, because I don't know how you would come up with the money to do the repairs on your own."
The Dardanelle levee that breached May 31 in Yell County had not been properly maintained, and as a result the Corps won't pay anything on repairs there.
FEMA officials said they might be able to offer assistance to Dardanelle.
"Hopefully with mitigation we can bring the levee up to standard so it can be brought into the Corps of Engineers system," Thomas said. "We did something similar to this with the levee in Pocahontas."
Palmer said the main problem with the state's levee system is vegetation.
"A lot of the area hasn't dealt with most high-water issues," Palmer said. "We get complacent. People won't mow the area, or someone will build a fence across the levee causing vegetation to grow around it."
The vegetation will grow unchecked each year, raising the cost of keeping the levee up to standard.
"It just kind of builds up on you and catches you," Palmer said. "Then these boards are having to figure out where to get $5 million to maintain the levee back to standard. Or you are asking a farmer to make the choice between bush-hogging his own land or the levee.
"How do you justify that?"
The governor recently issued an executive order to create the Arkansas Levee Task Force to review the management of the state's levees to ensure they are properly maintained and funded in the future.
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State Desk on 07/03/2019
Print Headline: U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas cities fret over flooding-related costs