Wet, Cool Year in Arkansas; Fewer Tornadoes Than ’08

January 5, 2010

First there was the ice that blanketed the northern third of Arkansas. Then the tornado that ripped through Mena.

Next came rain – record-breaking amounts of it in 15 Arkansas cities and areas.

Long, soaking rains and quick, heavy downpours caused flooding in many neighborhoods and ruined millions of dollars in crops.

Mother Nature rounded out 2009 in the state with a white Christmas for some who had dreamed of one – and more flooding for many others.

“That’s a topic of conversation every time somebody gets to talking at the coffee shop,” Polk County Sheriff Mike Oglesby said of the weather. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Indeed, 2009 was a year of above- or below-average weather events, unusual flooding and broken records, according to the National Weather Service and the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department.

Among the more notable happenings were:

  • 45 tornadoes recorded by the National Weather Service; 26 is the average for a year.
  • A cooler-than-average year, with Little Rock recording no 100-degree or hotter days this summer for the first time since 2004.
  • The rainiest year for many, as Little Rock had its wettest year since weather records have been kept. In 2009, 81.79 inches fell in the capital city, while 75.54 inches was the previous record, set in 1882. Several cities broke single day rainfall records.
  • Major roadways that traditionally haven’t flooded were closed for hours in December because of high water.
  • Fayetteville and Fort Smith both celebrated Christmas with snow, something that hasn’t happened in both cities at once in more than a century.

Tragedy came along with the many weather events in 2009. At least 25 people died from weather-related injuries in Arkansas last year.

Of those, 18 happened during the ice storm that walloped north Arkansas in late January, when below-freezing temperatures turned sleet and freezing rain into thick sheets of ice on roadways, tree limbs and power lines. The storm downed tens of thousands of utility poles and cut electricity to nearly 400,000 people.

The federal government gave the state more than $194 million in public assistance to deal with the aftermath of the storm, said Kim Pease, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That money went toward things such as fixing roads and bridges, and hauling off debris.

According to the National Weather Service, from a wintry precipitation standpoint, the ice storm was “one of the most destructive events in Arkansas recorded history.”

The ice storm was responsible for the bulk of the $208 million the federal government has given the state so far for 2009 public assistance due to disaster, Pease said. But that total doesn’t include money for flooding damage from Oct. 29 through the end of the year.

Another $5.2 million went toward recovery in Mena and Polk County, which was hit by a tornado packing winds up to 165 mph on April 9.

The tornado, one of seven that day, ripped a roughly 14.5-mile-long path from south-southeast of Potter through Mena and then lifted northeast of Ink.

Though Arkansas experienced more tornadoes in 2009 than in a typical year, the number dropped considerably from 2008. That year, the state saw 81 tornadoes and 21 tornado-related fatalities, said Brian Smith, a senior forecaster with the National Weather Service office in North Little Rock.

The only known tornado-related fatalities in 2009 came during the April 9 twister at Mena. It killed three people within blocks of one another when homes and buildings collapsed around them.

The rain gauge at the Mena airport registered 87.69 inches for the year, according to the National Weather Service.

But that wasn’t the most rain that fell in a single city in 2009. That distinction goes to the small town of Leola in Grant County in central Arkansas.

The rain gauge that 75-year-old James Riggan keeps for the weather service recorded 100.05 inches of rain as of the afternoon of Dec. 31. Riggan and Leola Mayor Paul Orr say that, despite the rain, their town of about 515 people fared far better than many other cities because it’s in a hilly area where the rain runs off quickly.

Leola and Little Rock weren’t alone in the excessive-rain category. Fifteen cities or areas had their wettest year ever recorded, including Sheridan with 90.91 inches, Camden with 82.11 inches. Malvern, with 87.07 inches of rain, and 14 other cities or areas had their second-wettest year on record.

All that rain triggered sizable losses for farmers across the state. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported at least $309 million in crop losses in Arkansas through December.

The rain brought Christmas flooding in places such as Beebe and North Little Rock. It also shut down Interstate 30 at the Saline-Pulaski county line and U.S. Highway 67-167 in central Arkansas when travelers had packed the roadways on Christmas Eve.

Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette,

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