Flooding causes evacuations in Arkansas

March 25, 2008 8:43:26 PM PDT
Volunteers armed with sandbags held back water springing up from under a rural levee Tuesday as the White River continued its highest surge in a quarter-century through eastern Arkansas. The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning during the morning for rural Prairie County north of Interstate 40 after spotters noticed the levee had "sand boils" - water passing under the earthen barrier and appearing on the side like a muddy spring. By the afternoon, 100 volunteers held back the flow by building sandbag barriers for the water to be held in, creating pressure to stem the tide.

Thomas "Babe" Vincent, a levee district board member, praised the spirit of the volunteers.

"We've had people here today from the other side of the river who aren't in danger," Vincent said.

After heavy rains last week, major rivers overflowed, inundating north and central Arkansas and driving people from their homes and businesses. Almost half the state - 35 counties - was declared a disaster area.

The waters continued to rise Tuesday even as the sun was shining. The Army Corps of Engineers did not expect the White River to crest downriver at Clarendon until Friday at 33.5 feet.

Gov. Mike Beebe said disaster relief likely would come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Teams of state and federal officials were deployed Tuesday to examine flood-damaged buildings and businesses. Officials first put damages at $2 million but said it would likely rise well above that once the waters recede.

"We're hitting areas we can get to because a lot of areas we can't get to," FEMA spokesman Bob Alvey said.

National Weather Service meteorologist Benjamin Sipprell in Weldon Spring, Mo., said that the rains were not expected to be close to the amount that fell in Missouri last week - 5 to 10 inches or more over three days - but that this time the precipitation would fall on saturated ground and into full river basins. Work was under way to determine just what the rainfall might mean for river levels later this week.

Meanwhile, a federal judge in St. Louis and a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused Tuesday to stop the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from raising water levels on the Missouri River this week. Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon sued Monday seeking to stop the action, claiming it could add to downstream flooding.

The corps usually releases extra water in March, and again in May, to prompt spawning of the endangered pallid sturgeon.

John Paul Woodley, the Pentagon's assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, said Tuesday that the corps planned to release water at midnight unless its forecasts changed. The agency's modeling shows that water levels in flooded areas will drop by the time the release reaches them, he said.

"We would not release water to Missouri or any other state if we felt it would cause a likelihood of flooding," Woodley said.

Associated Press writers Betsy Taylor and Cheryl Wittenauer in St. Louis and Sam Hananel in Washington contributed to this report.