Governor Declares County ‘Disaster Area’
BY LEANN DILBECK AND MELANIE BUCK –
Polk County is among twelve other Arkansas counties to have been officially declared ‘disaster areas’ by Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, following Sunday’s torrential rains and devastating flooding. Other counties included in the state declaration are: Benton, Calhoun, Carroll, Drew, Franklin, Logan, Madison, Ouachita, Perry, Searcy, and Washington. The amount of aid that will be available to the county is yet to be determined.
Tornado sirens sounded at approximately 4 a.m. Sunday morning and public tornado shelters were opened as the edge of a storm responsible for spawning multiple tornadoes and killing several people in Texas moved into the local area, bringing with it extreme flooding conditions. Creeks and rivers breached their banks as cloud to ground lightening strikes caused one structure fire on Hwy. 8 West and temporarily disabled KQOR 105.3FM.
As of press time, officials were still waiting on water levels to continue to recede to compile a full assessment of the damage and to know if the storm will qualify the county for a federal disaster declaration. Polk County Judge Brandon Ellison reported Sunday evening that he suspected that this storm may be as bad as or even exceed the May 30, 2013 storm, which caused over $767,000 in damages. “It looks very similar to the 2013 floods that we had. We’ve had this same situation four to five times over the last two years. It’s becoming all too familiar,” Ellison told The Pulse.
As much as 12.75 inches of rain were reported in parts of the county over the weekend as the mighty strength of Goliath, as the storm has been appropriately named, tore through. KENA’s weather watcher at Alder Springs reported 12.75 inches of rain, remaining the highest total in the county. Other totals from KENA weather watchers were: Ink-9.75″; Mena Airport-8.36″; Yocana-8.25″; Cove-7.90″; Board Camp-7.00″; Pulse Multi-Media-6.80″; and Hatfield-6.00″. As Goliath continues to make his way across the country, much of his path is still reeling from the destruction.
Polk County officials and law enforcement were out in full force beginning early Sunday morning to assess damages. However, as daylight came, so did travelers and emergency personnel found themselves at several points of rescue as flood waters swept drivers from roadways, amidst warnings to stay home. “The majority of the calls we responded to were avoidable situations,” Sheriff Mike Godfrey told residents Sunday night as he urged them to stay home unless it was an emergency. “You may know the road but when there is water covering it, you really don’t know if that road or bridge is still there or not,” said Godfrey.
One such rescue occurred around 10 a.m. on Sunday when a man was swept into a creek in his pickup truck on Polk Road 95. Emergency personnel tried every avenue to reach the man before calling in assistance from the National Guard. The Guard’s trucks are lifted high enough to travel through the rising waters so they were able to rescue the man who said the water was up to the windows on his vehicle.
The flood also heavily damaged one of the county’s historic bridges [ABOVE]. Located on Polk Road 38, just past the Boy Scout Camp, the historic iron bridge over the Mountain Fork River was constructed in 1905 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in April 1990. The end platform on the west end of the bridge spent much of the flood standing straight up in the water as it had broken loose from the rest of the bridge while remaining attached to the roadway. Local resident Kayla Wells lives just two miles from the bridge and told The Pulse, “That is the highest I have ever seen it, my husband says the highest it’s been in about 12 or 13 years. We live about 2 miles from the bridge and drove down about every hour to see how much it had risen. And it just kept coming. Finally around 9pm it had began to drop but we couldn’t tell the extent of damage till morning.” Along with many other bridges in the county, it will be closed and impassable for an undetermined amount of time.
After already spending hours assessing damages from the 4 a.m. tornado threat and the significant rainfall received as well as rescuing citizens, crews found themselves watching another tornado producing system move over the east side of the county before noon. Polk County Emergency Management Coordinator James Reeves watched as the system came into the county from DeQueen and moved north, running through the county to Mena, going over the bowling alley and moving towards Old Dallas. Reeves also expressed Godfrey’s sentiments saying, “Our biggest problem has been people on the roads that don’t really need to be. We’ve had several rescues as we have water standing in usual places but also in places that don’t normally retain water,” Reeves said. He added, “It isn’t worth risking you life, the life of your loved ones, or our rescuers’ lives by driving on roads that can’t be seen due to water covering them.”
In addition to tornado and flood warnings, lightening also became an issue. Just before 1 p.m., a house was reported to have been hit by lightening although no damage was reported. At approximately 2:30 p.m., a pool house on Hwy. 8 West was hit by lightening and a fire was started. The Shady Grove Fire Department responded to the scene and extinguished the flames.
At one time, as many as 600 county residents were without power but by 8 p.m. Sunday evening, Rich Mountain Electric Cooperative Manager Leon Philpot reported that all power had been restored. At the peek of the storm, all major highways leading into Mena had sections that were under water, leaving many motorists stranded, but by 8 p.m. Sunday evening, Sheriff Godfrey reported that all highways were open.
Cove Mayor Joan Headley said they “were really lucky” in her area. “We just had some small branches and such. Our street crews checked the area on Monday and we are fine here,” said Headley. She also reported that 10 inches of rain fell at her residence in Cove.
Brett Hobbs, Ark. Game and Fish Commission Supervisor of District 8, said that as of Monday, Lake Wilhelmina had crested and wasn’t expected to rise anymore. Although an actual foot level amount was unable to be obtained, Hobbs said their winter weather activity protocol protected their area the most. “We opened the top gate and radial arm gates like we do each year because heavier rain is normal for winter. It really helped us.” Hobbs explained the water almost reached the feed bins used to supply the catfish cages but no damage was sustained there. He also said that the water was close to breaching the earthen spillway, but the area maintained its strength. According to Hobbs, the last time the water was close to breaching the earthen spillway was the 1970’s. “We may have sustained some damage on the road near the campsites. We will be assessing the damage and will take any appropriate actions to repair the area,” said Hobbs.
Rivers remain swelled as they have all breached their banks and are roaring through pastures and roads throughout the county. The Mountain Fork River on the west side of the county is at 35 feet, more than 25 feet above normal. The Cossatot River near Vandervoort is near 14 feet, and the Ouachita River near Mt. Ida is near 28 feet.
Officials have been unable to give a detailed listing of road closures because the damage is so widespread. Officials urge everyone to exercise extreme caution and to not drive into water covered roadways. The road or bridge may no longer be there. TURN AROUND, DON’T DROWN. Officials will continue to assess damages to release a full report as soon as possible and will be reported on KENA 104.1FM news and MyPulseNews.com. Additional flood photos and videos are available on the Polk County Pulse Facebook page.