Volunteers in Ark. Hold Back Levee ‘Sand Boils’ to Prevent Flooding

March 27, 2008

Water continued to rise Wednesday in Arkansas, where federal officials have begun to gather their first damage assessments in the week-long floods that have displaced residents and soaked homes and businesses in nearly half the state.

The White River is higher than it has been in a quarter-century, flooding properties and farmland. The river is expected to crest early Friday at Clarendon in eastern Arkansas at 61/2 feet above flood stage.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency collected reports Wednesday morning from field workers who fanned out the previous day to determine the scope of damage where the waters have receded. The agency was tallying the figures.

“We’re just getting information from our folks who were out,” FEMA spokesman Bob Alvey said.

Three of nine assessment teams looked at damage to homes, businesses and personal property. The other six checked infrastructure, such as roads, culverts and bridges, Alvey said.

“We are getting a snapshot of damages within a county,” Alvey said. The idea is to get information to Gov. Mike Beebe quickly so he can proceed with further requests for federal assistance for infrastructure repairs and for help for individuals.

“We’re working with local authorities to make sure we get to the places we need to be,” Alvey said.

On Tuesday, flood waters near Des Arc reached homes and businesses and pressured levees along the White River. The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning Tuesday morning for rural Prairie County north of Interstate 40 after spotters noticed the levee had “sand boils” – water passing under the earthen barrier and appearing on the side like a muddy spring. By the afternoon, 100 volunteers held back the flow by building sandbag barriers for the water to be held in, creating pressure to stem the tide.

Thomas “Babe” Vincent, a levee district board member, praised the spirit of the volunteers.

“We’ve had people here today from the other side of the river who aren’t in danger,” Vincent said.

After heavy rains last week, major rivers overflowed their banks, inundating north and central Arkansas and driving people from their homes and businesses. Almost half the state – 35 counties – was declared a disaster area.

Tuesday, the waters continued to rise even as the sun was shining. The Army Corps of Engineers did not expect the White River to crest down river at Clarendon until Friday at 33.5 feet.

Beebe, on hand to visit some volunteers at the levee, described seeing the “devastating” flooding from the air on a recent helicopter trip across the state.

“It looked like just a solid lake from Batesville to Newport – you couldn’t tell where the river was,” the governor said.

Beebe said disaster relief to those affected likely would come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Teams of state and federal officials were deployed Tuesday to examine flood-damaged buildings and businesses. Officials first put damages at $2 million, but said it would likely rise well above that once the waters recede.

Alvey said teams first concentrated on counties in northwest Arkansas and will then move to Arkansas’ prairie.

Meanwhile, residents in east-central Arkansas did what little they could Tuesday while waiting for flood waters to subside.

Standing on a levee and taking photographs to document the damage, Karen Phillips gazed stoically at her home, where the White River had intruded two days earlier. Phillips expected to have to stay another night in a hotel.

Donald Holland and his wife moved three goats and nine chickens to higher ground but were having trouble finding their turkeys. Holland was so distracted he forgot it was his 68th birthday.

“The water’s about a foot deep around my trailer,” Holland said during a break from searching for a gobbler and a hen. “I’ve got my boat tied up to my front porch.”

The flooding was particularly unnerving to wheat farmers whose investments were under water.

“I’m sure the (flooded) acreage numbers are much greater than we envisioned last week when the rain started – tens of thousand of acres, I’m sure,” said wheat agronomist Jason Kelley of the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.

Kelley said the flooding would reduce yields and may kill crops in some places, depending on how long the water stands. All the money farmers invested in their crops could be lost, he said.

The weather service said the Black River in northeast Arkansas had crested but would take several days for the flood waters to recede.

On the Net:
Arkansas Emergency Management: www.adem.arkansas.gov/
Weather Service Arkansas flood map: http://tinyurl.com/2ujyrw

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