PINE BLUFF -- Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday that widespread flooding that has affected communities along the Arkansas River over the past two weeks is the most impactful natural disaster Arkansas has seen in his 4½ years as governor.
"We've had floods, we've had tornadoes, but we've never had anything as devastating as this historic flood that has reached levels that nobody has anticipated before," Hutchinson said while touring flood-damaged areas in Jefferson County.
Arkansas officials began bracing for flooding last month when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began releasing water from flood reduction lakes in Oklahoma after northern Oklahoma and southern Kansas received more than 7 inches of rain. Water was pushing into Arkansas by May 24, resulting in record crests and major flooding as the water worked its way downstream.
Hutchinson said water has extended into areas where officials never expected floodwaters to reach.
"It's very unusual, too," he said. "A tornado hits, is done with, and you get to recovery. Here we've had weeks of preparation, actually, for this flooding, hard work, and it means it's a real stress on our emergency management teams who have to be there every day.
"So we're in new territory that we haven't seen before and the concern is, well, how long will the recovery part be? How long will it take for this historic, record flood to recede? Well, we'll just have to wait and see, and a lot of that depends on things that are out of our control, like the weather."
Hutchinson said it's too early to estimate the dollar amount of the damage or the overall economic impact of the flood.
"The only figure we have that is of great significance is that the loss of the navigation channel means a $23 million hit every day to the economy of Arkansas," he said. "That's the kind of economic impact that river has in its navigation system."
He said it is not known how long the river will be closed to navigation.
"It will be some time," Hutchinson said. "Some time."
The governor said he hopes to complete a preliminary damage assessment by the end of this week, which he said would enable him to request a formal disaster declaration from President Donald Trump's administration.
"That will help provide some individual assistance for the homeowners as well as some of the public infrastructure damage that has been done," Hutchinson said.
However, the governor said only limited assistance will be available to compensate individuals for uninsured losses.
"We have to get the federal declaration, and once it becomes a federal disaster there are some reimbursements that are available for some relocation expenses, some temporary shelter-type expenses," Hutchinson said. "There's going to be some available, but it's not going to be near sufficient to cover the loss to the homes that are uninsured."
Hutchinson said businesses and farmers who suffered uninsured losses also will have a hard time recouping their losses. One avenue may be low-interest loans that may be available, Hutchinson said, "but that's the last thing farmers and small businesses need is more loans."
"The best thing we can do as citizens is to get back to our economy very quickly where we are buying and supporting our merchants and getting back to normal activity, because that means normal commerce," he added.
River crest records have been set in most areas stretching from Fort Smith to Little Rock. Van Buren saw a record crest of 40.79 feet May 31. Dardanelle saw a record crest of 45.39 feet Sunday, and floodwater in Morrilton crested at 43.03 feet Tuesday.
The river was expected to crest at approximately 30 feet in Little Rock early this morning, several feet below the record of 34.6 feet set in 1943. The crest in Pine Bluff is expected to reach 51 feet Thursday. The level at Pine Bluff was 50.45 feet at 5 p.m. Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service in North Little Rock.Gallery: Pulaski County flooding continues
Hutchinson was in Pine Bluff on Tuesday for a briefing regarding disaster preparations and to reassure county officials that help will be forthcoming from the state and federal government. He said Jefferson County was "probably the largest impacted area statewide as far as one concentration of homes."
At least 500 homes in the county have been affected to some degree by flooding, county officials said. All of them are inside of the levee system, and many are currently sitting in water as high as the rooftops.
"We have over 500 homes statewide that have been evacuated." Hutchinson said, "That's outside of this area that's been impacted, so that really, really ups the number of homes and puts it in perspective."
Karen Blevins, Jefferson County's director for the office of emergency services, told Hutchinson that a few homes inside the levees remained dry but that most have been affected.
"Many houses were built before there were any kind of regulations for floodplain development," Blevins said. "Those are the ones that we're seeing on social media with water up to the roofs."
County Judge Gerald Robinson there are "small areas of concern" out in the county about levees that could breach, but he said county crews are addressing those issues. Robinson said gaps in the levee system that were left intentionally to allow traffic to move from one side of the levee system to the other have been filled.
"Right now, we feel like we're OK," he said. "We're just trying to meet any needs head-on as we discover those needs."
Hutchinson spoke with Robinson and Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington about the levee system.
"The levee system is so critical to our state and it's working," Hutchinson said, "but there's some places where it might need to be higher, where it might need to be maintained better. They need to have fewer cuts in it to have more control over it and better maintenance."
A Section on 06/05/2019
Print Headline: Governor: Flood ruin 'new territory'