Bush declares Ark. floods a federal disaster

Ark Storms
Stretches along the White River in Arkansas, like this area near Clarendon, were swamped Wednesday.Mike Wintroath / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Residents along part of the already flooding White River were told to expect waters to rise about a foot day over the next few days, while President Bush provided some relief by declaring federal disaster areas in 35 counties hit over the last week.

Authorities warned small communities and cabin dwellers along the White River National Wildlife Refuge that they will soon be affected by rising waters that have flooded more than half the state.

Hydrologist Steve Bays of the National Weather Service said Thursday that residents are going to see a foot a day rise. The refuge is located in the floodplain of the White River near where it meets the Mississippi.

“One thing that we are trying to do around here is keep people concerned about what’s going on but not inflict a panic, and it’s a fine line. It certainly bears monitoring by people along the river,” Bays said.

Bays said there were too many variables to predict what will happen when the crest in the White River meets the Mississippi on Arkansas’ eastern border. While rain is forecast, it might not be as heavy and might be slower moving than the storms last week that brought on the current conditions.

At St. Charles on Thursday morning, the White River was at 29.3 feet, about a foot higher than a year ago. Bays guessed the river would reach 33-35 feet by late this weekend or early next week, near the 36.5-foot level during floods in 1973.

“It’s certainly going to be several feet above what causes some problems,” Bays said.

Thursday morning, the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning for points along the White River downstream from Des Arc.

Water will remain on some roads and highways and in some homes into mid-April, as well as cover cropland into May or beyond, Bays said.

"The river's going to be out of its banks for a prolonged period of time," he added.

Levee springs leaks
Outside of Des Arc, water from the White River began springing up in new places Wednesday along a rural levee north of Interstate 40. The day before, volunteers used sandbags to hold back the "sand boils" — muddy springs that develop when water passes underneath the earthen barriers.

Loy Hamilton, area commander for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' effort on the White River, said workers on Wednesday put 50-gallon barrels on top of the teapot-size sand boils to build pressure to staunch the flow.

"Right now, they're all flowing clear, which is ideal," Hamilton said, explaining that seeing silt in the water would mean the levee is being degraded from beneath. "If you shut it off, it just forces it around to another hole."

The levee will remain under 24-hour watch as long as the waters remain high, Hamilton said.

Heavy rains filled major rivers in northern Arkansas early last week, flooding communities as the water moved downstream. One person remains missing after the storms.

Gov. Mike Beebe declared 39 counties — more than half the state — disaster areas, while Bush issued a federal disaster declaration for 35 counties on Wednesday that provides access to federal funds.

Double trouble?
Residents and county officials along the river's path in east-central Arkansas worried that the river flows would hit an already swollen Mississippi River on the state's eastern border and flow back into their cotton and wheat fields.

"I don't think anybody knows how much higher it's going to get," Monroe County resident Marlin Reeves said as overcast skies threatened rain. Forecasters predicted a 50 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms hitting the Arkansas prairie by Friday.

At Maddox Bay in Monroe County, Reeves, 67, used a small tractor to pile sand in the front yard of his home along the old White River. In its present-day channel, the swollen river moved along the opposite side of a pine-covered island visible from Reeves' backyard. Already, river water flooded into other yards and homes down the gravel road from Reeves' house.

Sand that Reeves got several days ago filled six bags piled against his front door.

Monroe County Judge Larry Morris, chief administrator in the county of about 11,300 people, said he feared the flooding would cut off roads to the area.

The county printed yellow-and-red flyers to distribute to residents, urging them to leave or to have enough food to last "at LEAST two weeks."

Wheat farmers already were reporting damage from the water, Morris said.

Recent heavy rains also flooded parts of Ohio, Indiana, southern Illinois and wide areas of Missouri. The weather has been linked to at least 17 deaths.

Controversy in Missouri
In Missouri, the Army Corps of Engineers said Thursday it stopped the release of extra water into the Missouri River below Kansas City, citing residents worried about more flooding.

The corps said it began holding back releases from tributary dams in the lower Missouri on Wednesday. That move effectively negates releases already put in motion from Gavins Point Dam in Yankton, S.D.

The move will still provide a pulse of higher water needed to prompt spawning of an endangered fish, the corps said.

State leaders wanted the release stopped, citing a risk of more flooding, and after losing a court effort to stop it they asked President Bush to step in.

The White House said the corps is complying with a long-standing supervised plan and is monitoring weather and river conditions closely. It said the corps would not have conducted the release if it endangered the public.

Meanwhile, the Mississippi River was rising more slowly than had been forecast at Vicksburg, Miss.

The Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center had expected the river to reach flood stage of 43 feet by Wednesday, but its latest prediction is that it will happen Saturday. The latest crest prediction is 45 1/2 feet on April 4, down from an earlier forecast of 46 feet.

Some areas of Vicksburg and Warren County already are taking on water, and others will flood if the crest forecast proves correct.