President declares emergency for Arkansas flooding; hundreds of people living in temporary shelters

Flood waters surround homes, Thursday, May 30, 2019 in Fort Smith, Ark. The Arkansas River held steady at record levels Thursday, putting enormous pressure on aging levees and offering little relief to areas enduring historic flooding. (Hannah Grabenstein/AP)

FORT SMITH, Ark. — President Donald Trump has declared an emergency in Arkansas, which has been hit by historic flooding.

The White House said late Thursday night that President Trump approved the emergency disaster declaration requested by the state, where hundreds of homes and thousands of acres of farmland have been affected by flooding along the Arkansas River. The declaration allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide assistance for emergency protective measures in Arkansas, Chicot, Conway, Crawford, Desha, Faulkner, Franklin, Jefferson, Johnson, Lincoln, Logan, Perry, Pope, Pulaski, Sebastian, and Yell counties.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson earlier this week had requested the emergency declaration in response to the flooding.

Temporary shelters were housing hundreds of people on Thursday following evacuations along the swollen Arkansas River, where officials kept a close eye on an aging levee system facing enormous pressure from enduring floodwaters.

The river held steady at record levels, offering little relief to areas enduring historic flooding. Hundreds of homes have been flooded so far in and around Fort Smith, Arkansas’ second-largest city, while nearly 1,100 homes have flooded across the Oklahoma border in Muskogee County, according to local emergency management officials.

“This has been massive for me. Totally devastating,” said Kenny Ward, a 53-year-old former Marine who sheltered with dozens of other flooded-out residents at the Evangel Temple Assembly of God Church in Fort Smith.

Ward said he had been living in a tent along an Arkansas River tributary before floodwaters forced him out a week ago. His tent, housing his clothing, medication, sleeping bag and birth certificate, was surrounded by waist-high water when he returned to the site three days ago.

Ward said he spent the next five days helping to fill sandbags for his neighbors who were trying to protect their homes.

Governor Asa Hutchinson and several other lawmakers took a birds-eye view from the Garrison Ave. Bridge of flooding along the Arkansas River Thursday.

The tour allowed the elected leaders to see the record flooding at Toad Suck, Dardanelle, Ozark, Trimble Lock and Dam, Van Buren and Fort Smith.

Lawmakers said it will take weeks until the flood water recedes and after it does, some residents will be able to return to their homes to assess the damage.

FEMA is currently on the ground and will be a part of the flood assessment team whenever the water recedes.

The floods have shut down barge traffic on the Arkansas River, causing the state to lose $23 million a day. Thousands of acres of farmland have been destroyed during the disaster, and it’s unclear at this time what kind of impact on the state’s economy the loss of crops will be.

Congressman Steve Womack told 5NEWS that a federal relief funding bill should pass on Monday after being tied up in Congress.

The Arkansas River has passed the all-time highest river level of 38.1ft set in May of 1945. The river reached a crest of just under 40.26 feet Wednesday morning but will crest again around midnight late Thursday into Friday at 40.5ft according to new NWS projections.

“Historic flooding has left many communities along the Arkansas River unrecognizable,” Senator John Boozman said. “This is one of the worst natural disasters in our state’s history, but we can be proud of the resolve that Arkansans have demonstrated to face this challenge. This continues to be a dangerous situation and we are fortunate to have the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management, law enforcement, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Arkansas National Guard and many other organizations and individuals who are closely monitoring the water levels, levees and dams and are ready to respond to potential emergencies.”

Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday announced he’s increased emergency funding to $350,000 — up from the $100,000 already approved — in response to historic flooding affecting the state.

Hutchinson also said he communicated to President Donald Trump to ask for more assistance from federal agencies.

At least one death in Arkansas has been blamed on the flooding. In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker activated the National Guard to respond to recent severe flooding there.

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