Flooding the Next Natural Disaster for Arkansas

By Chuck Bartels | April 29, 2011

Water pushed beyond the banks of rivers in east Arkansas on April 27, flooding homes and flowing over fields where many farmers had already postponed planting because of an unlikely stretch of wet weather during a drought.

On the two previous days, storms killed 11 people in Arkansas, with six of the deaths occurring when people drove into flooded roadways. April 27 was comparatively calm, with only a handful of tornado warnings. Trees and power lines fell in Craighead and White counties, and some homes were damaged. Thousands remained without electricity in the state.

The Black River is forecast to crest at record levels in northeast Arkansas, where it has already brought widespread flooding, causing evacuations in Lawrence and Randolph counties. That segment of the river is downstream from Poplar Bluff, Mo., where the Black had already overtopped its levees and threatened to displace 7,000 people.

Gov. Mike Beebe said while viewing storm damage in Jacksonville that it would likely be weeks before the state can develop a dollar estimate for its storm damage because of the continued flooding.

“Most of these waterways haven’t crested yet, so it’s likely to get a lot worse before it gets better,” Beebe said.

He said teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency were working in Arkansas and that he expected to ask for a federal disaster declaration.

“We’ve gotten too good at disaster response because we’ve had so many disasters,” Beebe said.

Numerous homes flooded in 2008 when the Black River reached 26.5 feet at Pocahontas. The National Weather Service has forecast the river to crest at 28.5 feet on Saturday, the highest in recorded history. The record was 27.9 feet in August 1915.

Other waterways, including the White, Spring and Eleven Point rivers, weren’t in record territory but crested above flood stage. Clay and Sharp counties, also in northeast Arkansas, had flooding.

“It’s not going to be easy for these rivers to lower anytime soon,” National Weather Service meteorologist Sean Clarke said.

The problem is the Mississippi River is high, and Arkansas river systems, which have gotten about 10 inches of rain in recent days, drain into the Mississippi.

Arkansas has been in a drought, which kept the effect of the persistent rains from being worse.

“The one saving grace right now is the lakes in the northern part of the state were able to hold a lot of water because of the drought,” Clarke said.

But they couldn’t hold enough to keep floodwaters from thousands of acres of cropland.

Chuck Wilson, a rice expert with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, said between 40 percent and 45 percent of rice acreage has been planted. Some of those fields are in fine shape, but many have young rice plants under as much as 15 feet of water.

“I’ve seen rice survive as much as 21 days (under deep water) in the right conditions, but I’ve also seen it dead in a week,” Wilson said.

Flooded growers who have already planted may be in a bind. The same is true for those who have not planted. Wilson said an estimate of flood-affected acreage was not available yet.

Rick Wimberley, Cross County extension agent for the UA Division of Agriculture, said rice planting is about a month behind. Growers can wait another month to plant, but that’s less than ideal.

“We’ll push up to June 1. Depending on what rice prices do, we might go a little later,” Wimberley said. Many fields that haven’t directly experienced river flooding are too soggy for planting.

“It’s like walking in a soup bowl out there. It’s just mush,” Wimberley said.

Arkansas grows about half of the rice produced in the United States.

“Probably the best thing would be 10 days of sunshine, wind out of the north. That would dry us out,” Wimberley said.

But more rain fell in east Arkansas on April 27, with more forecast for the weekend.

Rice growers don’t have much latitude to change crops.

“They (the fields) may not dry out enough for a soybean crop to go in. And if there’s another flood, it’s a whole lot worse on a soybean plant than on a rice plant,” Wilson said. Soybeans should be planted by the end of the third week in May.

Rice farmers flood their fields once the plants reach a stage of maturity, and Wilson noted the irony of growers who need to drain their fields so they’ll be able to fertilize and flood them again.

Rice growers in California commonly drop seed from agricultural aircraft. Wilson said there is a greater risk of yield loss, but growers have that option in Arkansas.

“It’s just a matter of trying to wait, get some dry weather and get some water off the fields and make a decision,” Wilson said.

Associated Press writer Andrew DeMillo contributed to this report from Jacksonville.

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