STORY & PHOTOS SUBMITTED BY MICHAEL CATE –
Winter Storm Goliath dumped up to a foot of rain locally in the last week of December 2015. As the waters gathered, an angry Ouachita River inundated farmland, uprooted trees and washed away half ton hay bales. Since then, communities along the Ouachita River have been rebuilding fences, roads and bridges. For the past several weeks, volunteers have also begun recovering debris from along the river. Miles of riverbank are decorated with trash. Most obvious, are innumerable shreds of white plastic hay wrap.
Morgan Puckett, a seventh grader at Mena Middle School first heard about the river situation from her family who has lived along the Ouachita for generations. “At first, I didn’t believe it could be so bad,” she said. When she saw the extent of the disaster, she was shocked. “There is trash all over the place from tiny pieces to pieces as long as cars,” Morgan explained. “I asked dad, “What are they going to do about this?”
Her father, Edd Puckett, replied with an uneasy answer of reassurance – that “they” would take care of it.
Morgan’s sense of preservation has been sharpened not only by what she learns in school, but from her family. For the past several years, she has routinely helped pick up the trash along county road 401. There is both determination and frustration in her voice as she describes the litter tossed thoughtlessly by the road. “It’s always (the same brand of bottle) so I know it’s people who just don’t care about anybody but themselves,” she laments.
Meanwhile, Morgan’s comments about the river situation weighed on Edd’s mind as he had no clue who “they” might be unless his family helped provide leadership. Edd and Morgan visited several river crossings only to discover more debris dotted the riverbanks as far as the eye could see. They realized it was a project that was going to require more than just a few people. “I told dad we just have to do something. The river situation isn’t because somebody didn’t care. This is a disaster like a tornado except it was caused by a flood.” Morgan explained. She emphatically noted the difference between careless litter and a disaster caused by nature.
Motivated by his daughter’s plea, Edd approached a group of friends who love to hunt and fish. Momentum began to build toward a river clean-up campaign. The topic gained the curiosity of local pilot Nathan Cline who flew Edd over the river to survey and photograph the litter field. They estimated the litter extends more than 10 miles and will require dozens of volunteers.
That’s when Project Morgan was envisioned. Their goal is to clean up as much of the flood debris as possible before it scatters further downstream. Some flooded hay rolls remain intact but their plastic wrap needs to be removed before it scatters to neighboring counties. The primary area of concern stretches approximately 10 miles from above McGuire Landing past Cherry Hill.
On March 12th, willing citizens are being asked to bring their flat bottom boats or canoes to a central staging area that is now being arranged. Volunteers will be provided with plastic bags and assigned a short section of the river to clean. Maps will be available with circled assignment areas; access points are being arranged with cooperative land owners along the affected area. The cleanup will end with a cookout at a staging area. In the event of bad weather, a rain date has been set for the following Saturday, March 19.
Edd hopes volunteers will not only come to help clean up the river but will take time to wet a hook and enjoy the beauty of the area’s namesake river.
Volunteers are invited to help in useful ways in the water as well as support crew at the staging site. To pledge your support as a landowner, recovery volunteer, or support crew, call Edd Puckett at 479-234-5435.