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'It's Never Done This': Arkansas River Keeps Flooding, Testing Levees And Patience

Businesses are underwater along the Arkansas River, including near Dardanelle. A levee broke just across the river overnight on Thursday.
Nathan Rott
Businesses are underwater along the Arkansas River, including near Dardanelle. A levee broke just across the river overnight on Thursday.

Updated at 9:35 p.m. ET

The Arkansas River just keeps rising. The usually placid tributary of the Mississippi has become a bloated torrent carrying entire trees downstream, drowning riverfront property and halting commerce for hundreds of miles.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday the high water is costing the state economy an estimated $23 million each day. The river is currently forecast to crest on Wednesday in Little Rock, and there is so much water moving downstream that it will likely be more than a week before floodwaters begin to recede from many areas.

His state joins others from the Dakotas down to Louisiana that have been dealing with weeks or even months of record-breaking flooding along the Mississippi River and its major tributaries. Back-to-back rainstorms have swept across the region, sometimes dumping inches of rain in just hours.

And, while flooding is a part of life along the rivers, this spring's relentless, extreme rain makes the disaster unfolding at the center of the country emblematic of a larger trend: Climate change is causing more extreme rain in some parts of the U.S., and that can cause more extreme flooding.

According to the most recent National Climate Assessment, "The frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation events across the United States have increased," especially in the northern and central parts of the country.

That means, although this flood is breaking records across the central U.S., it may not be the last time officials, and infrastructure, will be forced to deal with a disaster of this magnitude. On the Arkansas River, levees were built more than 60 years ago in most cases, and were not necessarily designed to withstand the kind of constant onslaught of high water that comes with a multiweek flood.

And the locks and dams along the river aren't there to protect against flooding — they're designed to make sure there's enough water in the river for barge traffic. "They are there to make sure there's a minimum of 9-feet of water in the channel," says Army Corps of Engineers spokesperson Laurie Driver.

It all adds up to hundreds of thousands of people, and millions of dollars in commerce, relying on infrastructure that, in many cases, was not designed to protect against so much water for such a long period of time.

So far, water has come over the top of a handful of levees on the Arkansas, including a major break near Dardanelle overnight on Thursday. Hundreds of workers are surveying the structures, looking for weaknesses and patching low areas with extra sand.

The prolonged flooding also has created problems for emergency officials who rely on evacuations to keep people safe. In some areas, it's been difficult to convince residents whose homes have never flooded that they need to leave.

"There are a lot of people who just didn't want to leave," says Jesse Cantu, who evacuated with his four children from near the community of Toad Suck. On Thursday, they were one of the only families at the Red Cross shelter nearby.

"Actually, our landlord hasn't evacuated," Cantu said. "Hopefully it doesn't get to a situation where they have to rescue him. It's pride, and it's, like, he's seen the river come up before and it's always been fine, so he just said, 'I'm not leaving.' "

"It's been less busy than what we thought it would be," says Red Cross volunteer Jim Hewitt, standing in a nearly empty gymnasium filled with cots. "We'll be here until they don't need us anymore. It's going to take a long time for the water to go down."

Even Cantu's sister-in-law and her family have refused to evacuate to the shelter. "She didn't want to leave because it never happened before. Like, last time it hit it didn't even get to our parking lot," he says. "I'm like, "Yeah, but this time it is. It's going to crest even more than record.' So you have to understand that, and leave. Or you might not survive this."

Cantu says, so far, he hasn't been able to convince all his extended family to come to the shelter, and the water has cut off access to some neighborhoods, stranding those who stayed behind.

Upstream in Fort Smith, John Hutchins and his wife of 42 years, Louise, stand in their open garage behind a knee-high wall of sandbags, looking at their flooded street. What had been parking spots looks like a pond, complete with a flock of geese. There's a parked car with water up to the wheel wells. Many of their neighbors have evacuated.

"We just felt like we didn't need to leave our home," Louise says. "We had a fire battalion chief that said he recommended that we leave, and I looked at him and said, 'OK, thank you.' And I didn't go anywhere."

"So as long as we had power, we was gonna stay," John adds.

"This isn't a flood zone," Louise says. "Supposedly. Talking to some of the neighbors who've lived here for years, it's never done this."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 30, 2019 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly suggested that levees, locks and dams all serve the same purpose on the Arkansas River. The locks and dams maintain a navigable river channel while the levees hold back water.
Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.
Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.