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story.lead_photo.caption Floodwaters from the Arkansas River spill over the banks near homes and the Pulaski County Garden Center at Two Rivers Park in this Friday, May 31, 2019 file photo. - Photo by Thomas Metthe

As the Arkansas River swelled to its highest level in decades, many of central Arkansas' parks and recreation areas flooded and remain under water.

The river crested Wednesday in Little Rock at 29.7 feet, sending several feet of water onto riverfront parks in Little Rock and North Little Rock and choking drainage systems of some inland parks.

Officials say the full scope of the damage won't be known until the water recedes.

Days before the river crested, North Little Rock had barricaded off most of Burns Park south of Interstate 40 and the North Shore River Walk area downtown to keep pedestrians and vehicular traffic away from the floodwaters. The flooding also caused facility closures and sports events to be rescheduled or canceled.

In Burns Park, all facilities south of I-40 are covered by water, except for a few parts on higher ground closest to the interstate. The dry ground includes the city animal shelter, which remains open. The Arkansas River Trail that extends from downtown through the Big Rock Quarry and Burns Park has disappeared beneath the water.

North of I-40, the Youth Baseball Complex, in a low area next to White Oak Bayou, is flooded. All other areas on the north side of the park -- the tennis center, park pavilions, Funland amusement park and disc golf area -- remain open.

A baseball tournament this weekend was moved to the park's softball complex, weather permitting. Three golf tournaments had been scheduled this month at the Burns Park course. No soccer tournaments are scheduled until fall, though the fields are ordinarily open for public use now.

North Little Rock parks Director Terry Hartwick said last week that until the water recedes, there is no way to know the full extent of the damage to park areas.

"The soccer fields, the golf course, the dog park, all of that is under water," Hartwick said. "Does the golf course need new sodding? The golf paths were all new. Is the asphalt on the trails going to hold? Until the water recedes, I don't know what I've got to look at, except a lot of work.

"Any golf tournament we're having through June to the first of July, we're telling them they either have to cancel or reschedule," Hartwick said. "I cannot see the soccer fields being ready before another month.

"Youth baseball is out of commission, I'd say, probably for two to three weeks," he said. "I'm hoping on Monday we can do something at the youth baseball fields, clear it first."

Muddy floodwaters cover everything from the riverbank to the flood wall in North Little Rock's River Walk area, which is part of the city parks system and home to the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum.

The maritime museum is scheduled to host a fireworks watch party during the annual July Fourth Pops on the River event held on Little Rock's side of the riverfront. Hartwick said the museum can still have its party if the parking lot is clear of water by then, even if the museum isn't able to open.

Gangplanks at the maritime museum flooded when the river level reached 17 feet. That happened May 28, a day before the museum was to open with summer hours. It's been closed since.

"I'm really concerned about the museum," Hartwick said. "It's just going to be that much worse than before. I mean, we've never seen [the water] hit the sea wall before. ... I cannot see us opening up the museum for another month."

Hartwick was just starting as the city's new Parks and Recreation Department director in late December 2015 when North Little Rock had severe flooding that stretched into January 2016. Floodwaters covered the Burns Park soccer fields and other low-lying areas, as well as forced the maritime museum to close for two months. The river crested at 24.9 feet in late December 2015, almost 5 feet lower than it did this month.

This time is "a lot worse," Hartwick said.

"I've seen it firsthand," said Hartwick, a former North Little Rock mayor who was president of the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce before moving into the city parks director's position. "I've been behind the barricades. I also bought a drone [for the department]. It gives us an opportunity to see what I can get to and not get to."

Having the drone gives the parks department a little jump on repair plans, said Jeff Caplinger, special projects director for the department.

"There's a big difference, especially being able to see it from an aerial view," Caplinger said. "We're able to get to areas we can't get to right now by land or water. We do not want to take a boat out because we don't feel safe. The water is moving too fast right now."

Since the last big flood, the department obtained the once-abandoned River House along the downtown riverfront. The parks department spent about $70,000 to renovate the building, opening it in 2017 for public rentals. Right now, it's flooded and likely will need complete renovation again, Hartwick said.

The River House "is now our most popular area we rent," Hartwick said. "I don't know the damage that is in it. Maybe it'll need new Sheetrock, new flooring, bathrooms, replace the tables and chairs. We've got to get in there and see how much damage is there. We did sandbag it. But, it's at the front door to the river."

Snakes and dead animals are a concern, too, Hartwick said.

"Snakes that flowed up on the river, they may make nests in there," he said. "I remember the last time [in early 2016] I found a rabbit up in a tree."

Sixteen Little Rock parks or facilities have been affected, said Mike Garrity, communications coordinator for the city's Parks and Recreation Department. Murray Park and the Rebsamen Park golf course are up to 6 feet under water, as are parts of Riverfront Park.

Some landlocked recreation sites in Little Rock, including the Hindman Park golf course and Interstate Park, are flooding because of backwater from Fouche Creek having nowhere to drain.

Parks department Director John Eckart said he couldn't yet give a cost estimate for cleanup.

"We'll just have to see when the water goes down what the damage is and what our next steps are," he said. "Right now we're formulating a plan for that, a plan of action for the cleanup. That's kind of our focus right now. Obviously, we have a lot of work."

He said electrical issues would be a large part of the cost. Lights and scoreboards are generally constructed to be above floodwaters' reach, but transformers are typically at ground level.

"Everything that's under water will have to be checked and more than likely is going to have to be replaced, as far as transformers and things like that," Eckart said.

He estimated that Rebsamen Park golf course being under water was the city's primary revenue loss from the flooding. The course makes between $20,000 and $25,000 a week, he said. The city also has had to cancel pavilion rentals in Murray Park and delay league sports in Interstate Park. Though most of Interstate Park's sports fields aren't flooded, there's standing water at the entrance; the same is the case for Natural Steps Park, Eckart said.

"It's at the entrance and the back of the fields. We have several drainage areas there that obviously are backed up," Eckart said.

Several private golf tournaments at Rebsamen Park also had to be adjusted.

As the water recedes in the coming week, Eckart said the Arkansas River Trail and Rebsamen Park Road likely will be the first areas to reopen. But even when the water clears, it will take time for the park workers to clear debris and inspect structures for safety.

Garrity said he expects to see a lot of dirt and silt settling on trails and pathways.

In Riverfront Park, the splash pads were closed because of drainage problems, and some sculptures were either taken out temporarily or surrounded by sandbags. The lower river trail through the park has been closed off, and Garrity said erosion is a concern.

The floating barge that allowed boats to dock off the Arkansas River in front of Riverfront Park floated away and surfaced near the Clinton Presidential Center, parks design manager Leland Couch said.

He said construction of a restroom at Two Rivers Park was halted because of flooding.

Couch, who has worked at the department since 2006, said the flooding is like nothing he's seen in terms of the amount of areas affected and the height of the water.

"It's a whole different experience," he said. "But we're up for the challenge, and we're here to get it all fixed as fast as we can when the water recedes."

Barry Hyde, the county judge, said repairs to public-use areas in Pulaski County, including Two Rivers Park and the River Trail, will cost in the millions. (Oversight of Two Rivers Park is split between Little Rock and the county.)

Once the water recedes, county crews will have to remove the debris that the high water left in those areas.

"The flowing waters will usually dump quite a bit of debris floating out in that river, and when the river starts going down, it will drop it wherever it drops it," Hyde said.

He said he expects the floodwaters to flatten fencing and gates. He also believes the county will lose some signs.

Several inches of river silt also will be deposited wherever floodwaters reach.

"Everything we have will be coated with this stuff," Hyde said.

He said workers will have to muck up the mud and then wait for the areas to dry out to get the last bit of sludge. Public-use areas, in particular, are affected because a lot of them are along the river.

A map showing parks and facilities affected by floodwaters

Metro on 06/09/2019

Print Headline: As waters ebb, city parks left miry mess


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