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story.lead_photo.caption The Arkansas River flows into a huge gap in the levee in the Lollie Bottoms area near Conway on Friday. - Photo by Thomas Metthe

CONWAY -- A deteriorating levee in the Lollie Bottoms area was holding Friday, but the risk of a breach remained high, city and county officials said.

Floodwaters from the Arkansas River have weakened the Faulkner County levee despite efforts over the past several days to shore up the structure. Deterioration reached the point late Thursday that the city sent out a warning on social media informing residents of heightened concerns about the levee's ability to withstand the flow of floodwaters. The message also recommended that residents in the area evacuate.

City and county officials, the Conway and Faulkner County fire departments and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers kept close watch over the levee overnight, and Conway Mayor Bart Castleberry and Jim Baker, county judge of Faulkner County, remained cautious Friday morning regarding the structure's ability to hold.

"The biggest concern we got today is the risk of a levee blowout," Baker said during a news conference held at a roadblock set up along Lollie Road. "Everybody thought it would breach by midnight and it didn't. The best thing that could happen is if it could hold one more day, the river might drop enough to take pressure off the levee."

The update came on the same day Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that he had submitted a request to President Donald Trump to issue an emergency federal disaster declaration covering eight counties -- Conway, Crawford, Faulkner, Jefferson, Perry, Pulaski, Sebastian and Yell.

Hutchinson's letter to the president said Arkansas needs an estimated $27 million to cover housing needs of people displaced because of "historic flooding" along the Arkansas River.

"The individuals that reside in the eight counties are seeking to remain in their communities but asking for assistance to repair their property," Hutchinson wrote in his letter, which also provided early financial estimates related to the flooding.

Castleberry said Friday that crews are cautiously optimistic the levee will hold with the water levels dropping.

"After engineers shot the elevations in Conway, we feel very good about the results of that," the mayor said. "At this current time we don't think anyone will be tremendously impacted in the city of Conway, but this is Mother Nature and things can change."

A few hours later, Castleberry said in a video posted on the city's Twitter page that the levee, a few miles from a Walmart on Dave Ward Drive, was going to break.

"At this moment the levee is holding, but it does appear a breach is imminent in the near future," Castleberry said in the video. "We have taken extra precautions. There is no reason if you live within the city limits of Conway for you to panic or evacuate."

Castleberry said the city had hired contractors to build a dam and install pumps on Tucker Creek, near Donnell Ridge Road, in case the levee gave way.

"Going to place a heavy pump on the opposite of [the dam] so if we get any big rains in the Conway area we can pump that over," Castleberry said. "Likewise, if the water starts going past [the dam] we can pump it back.

"Will it hold everything back? Probably not. But it will give us more time."

If the levee fails, Baker said it would take some time before floodwaters put people at risk. The area around the levee is sparsely populated, and officials said everyone who lives in the immediate area had already evacuated.

"It will take at least 20 hours to put people at risk, because the whole bottom would have to flood," the county judge said. "We would have at least 15 hours to get prepared."

Officials were already monitoring the levee around the clock when they discovered deterioration had reached an alarming level Thursday night.

"It was eroding fairly rapidly," Castleberry said. "It was a strange thing. It would erode 2 or 3 feet at a time, then it would cease and water would work under it."

Gallery: Lake Conway Flooding June 7th

The National Guard, the Corps of Engineers and county officials had dropped large sandbags on the levee for several days to reinforce it. Corps of Engineers spokesman Laurie Driver said more than 100 sandbags weighing 3,000 pounds each had been placed on the levee.

"The levee was already saturated from the rising river water," Conway Fire Chief Mike Winter said. "We felt like we had made good progress on the stability of the levee. The rain we received last night added to the saturation level, coupled with the weight on the levee, and the erosion began."

Officials were concerned Thursday night that Conway Municipal Airport at Cantrell Field and the city's sewer system were at risk, but Driver pointed out Friday that the levee held during the height of the flooding and said damage would be minimized should it fail now.

If breached, the Corps of Engineers estimated the maximum water surface elevation would be around 3 to 4 feet deep in low-lying areas.

"If the levee breaches, with the reduced river flows, the impacts will be significantly reduced," Driver said. "We do not anticipate the floodwater to impact the airport or Walmart."

Castleberry said all the planes had been evacuated from the airport earlier in the week.

"As a precaution, we asked all the owners to clear out their planes," Castleberry said Friday. "It was all voluntary. We killed the power to the building and got all the furniture out. As this has moved forward the river has gone down, so even the concern for our airport has decreased quite significantly."

Officials said Friday that they don't believe any people would be at risk if the levee breaks.

"Listen folks, we had 18 days' notice," Baker said. "The last 18 days people have prepared."

The situation looked better Friday for residents experiencing flooding around Lake Conway. The lake crested at 5 feet above its normal 263 feet mean sea level, according to Keith Stephens, a spokesman for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, which oversees the lake.

"No more water is coming over the dam," Stephens said. "It will take several days for the water to get below flood stage, unfortunately."

There wasn't a significant rise on Palarm Creek over the past few days, and the reduction between the creek level and the lake level allowed the agency to open the lake's floodgates at 1:30 p.m. Friday, Stephens said.

Multiple homes have been affected by floodwater from Lake Conway.

"My heart goes out to the people of Lake Conway," Baker said. "I have seen so many people lose their homes."

The state's cleanup costs could exceed $8 million and infrastructure repairs could exceed $100 million, Hutchinson said in his letter to Trump requesting a federal disaster declaration.

"These preliminary estimates are based upon assessments while the water is still in place," Hutchinson said in the letter. "As the water recedes, we will have a clearer picture of the overall damage in the state."

Approximately 857 homes were destroyed or heavily damaged in the eight counties mentioned in his request, Hutchinson said, including 124 in Jefferson County.

"Out of the 1,147 homes assessed thus far, an estimated 92.25% are uninsured with 78.3% of those homes owner occupied versus rented," Hutchinson said in the letter. "It is further estimated that 20.58% of those individuals are low income creating additional hardship for individuals striving to repair their property."

Hutchinson said the counties are in dire need of assistance to help individuals regain suitable living conditions, which cannot be obtained at their current financial status.

"Because several of the hardest hit areas also experienced major damage to infrastructure, industry, trade, and local businesses, as well as agricultural enterprises, it is expected that applications for disaster related unemployment will be high," Hutchinson said.

A map showing the location of Lollie Road
Photo by Thomas Metthe
Some homes at Toad Suck remain under water Friday even though floodwaters from the Arkansas River have begun to recede.
Photo by Thomas Metthe
On Lake Conway at Mayflower, water flows over boat docks and into homes Friday.
Photo by Thomas Metthe
Buddy Osburn, takes a break Friday while waiting for a fresh load of sandbags at his home on Gold Creek at Lake Conway. Sandbagging continues around the lake after it crested at 5 feet above its normal level.
Photo by Thomas Metthe
Charles Montgomery puts sandbags in place at his mother Pat’s home in the Gold Creek area.
Photo by Thomas Metthe
Samantha Jones fills a sandbag held open by her son Caleb, 12, while her other son, Michael, 14, ties a bag closed Friday at the Beaver Fork Fire Department in Conway.

A Section on 06/08/2019

Print Headline: 'One more day': Faulkner County officials hope levee holds until river drops


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