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Hope, help and a whole lot of water in flooded Northeast Arkansas

Dispatches from the deluge.


THE INLAND SEA: U.S. Highway 67, near Shannon.
  • THE INLAND SEA: U.S. Highway 67, near Shannon.

You can love a river. Love the birds that glide just above the water in the morning. Love the commerce and beauty and grandeur of it, the hidden bounty, the river simultaneously a kind of clock that counts the years and a brown thread that binds those who live along it to the past and future.

But loving a river is and always has been tempered with the knowledge — as old as mankind's tendency to found civilization on any bit of higher ground — that, sooner or later, the rain is going to come and not stop for hours or days. When it does, that tranquil, lazy flow that you love will be transformed into a beast with an unending appetite for sullying the best laid schemes of mice and men.

The rains came to Arkansas in early May. By the time the sun returned, according to preliminary estimates by the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, 937,000 acres of farmland had been inundated across the state, at a time when almost 90 percent of the state's crops were already in the ground. Rice will reportedly be the hardest hit, with an estimated 156,000 acres — and $29.9 million in revenue — feared lost. According to the UA, total financial losses to farmers in the state due to impacts from the floods will top $64 million.

The town of Pocahontas in Northeast Arkansas's Randolph County was hard hit by the flooding, boxed in as it is by five rivers that are, in normal years, celebrated as tourist attractions for fishermen and canoers: the Black, the Current, the Elevenpoint, the Spring and the Fourche, along with dozens of creeks and streams and sloughs, unnamed and named, in the woods and fields around. The old-timers founded the town proper on high ground that sits above the Black, the city shelving down from the old courthouse to a sharp bend in the river that snakes past the bounds of Pocahontas and out of sight. Subsequent generations built on lower-lying land in east Pocahontas, on the other side of the river. Flooding wasn't really a problem until recently, people in town will tell you, but this is the third time the waters have risen and smote the low-lying areas of Pocahontas since 2008. Something is wrong with the weather, people say.

When the rains came, the Black River rose and drowned the Walmart store and whole neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city to a depth of 3 feet or more in some places. A mandatory evacuation order was issued for east Pocahontas on May 2. The river was scheduled to crest at over 31 feet, which would have been an even bigger disaster, but only managed 29 before the levees broke.

Media reports said it was the levee breach that flooded portions of the town, but it was actually the opposite, according to the mayor. With the levees protecting the city to only 27 feet in some places, there was already widespread flooding by the time the levee broke. The breach siphoned water out of flooded stores and neighborhoods at the rate of two inches an hour once the levee failed and set water pouring into the fields to the south. Talking to people in Pocahontas about the levee breach, you find a strange mix of relief and sadness, the city mouse knowing that he or she had been spared some unknowably worse measure of calamity at the expense of country cousins downstream. Everybody knows everybody in Pocahontas, which means that everybody seems to know somebody who lost everything.

Days after the Black began to recede, Stan Vinson was working at stripping sodden carpets out of the home of his sister, Cleva Dean, near the corner of Old Country Road and Knott Street, more than half a mile east of the river. His clothes were covered in mud from his waist down to the soles of his shoes. Across the way, a commercial building sat surrounded by a hastily constructed dirt berm. After a final, desperate attempt to sandbag the house and move the appliances and furniture to higher ground as the rain came down, Vinson and Dean had been forced to evacuate to Vinson's home in Corning. They hadn't been able to get back to the house until days later, and found a mess. A friend had scared up some help to get the carpet and carpet padding out. It lay in soggy heaps on the lawn.

"We knew that if [the Black River] went to 31 and a half, there wasn't any hope," Vinson said. "Then the levee broke. The water went down, but we still got the carpets wet. We could have done a better job at sandbagging, and we will if we have to do it again."

BACK HOME: Stan Vinson stripped sodden carpets out of his sister's flooded home in east Pocahontas.
  • BACK HOME: Stan Vinson stripped sodden carpets out of his sister's flooded home in east Pocahontas.

Inside, Cleva Dean stood in her dark and empty kitchen. The house smelled of dank river water, the air conditioner and gas heaters running full blast to try to dry things out. With the carpet stripped away, the bare plywood sheathing was spongy underfoot.

Dean has lived in the house since 1972, and said flooding had never been a problem until recently. She'd evacuated to her brother's house during a flood in 2011. Water didn't get into the house that time. This time, she was not so lucky. She seemed always on the knife-edge of tears, speaking like a woman who was expecting to wake up in her dry house at any moment. She doesn't have flood insurance, she said.

"I've lived here for years without it doing anything," she said. "I didn't think it was worth it, but I guess it was. Flood insurance is pretty high and then it doesn't pay off nearly anything. ... You just have to roll with the punches. You don't have any idea when FEMA is going to be around, do you?" Her brother has told her they should be able to get things righted and have her moved back in in about six weeks, but who knows?

A little further into east Pocahontas on Redbud Street, Cody Grice was standing in front of the peeling white frame house he shares with his father. Nearby, just on the other side of a crooked line of traffic cones, Redbud Street disappeared into murky brown water like a boat ramp. What looked to be a small brick church stood flooded just up the block.

As the Black River rose, Grice's house was saved by a neat, 3-foot wall of white sandbags surrounding the house; the product of a 13-hour, all-day thrash by Grice and his friends. They brought in at least 10 truckloads of sand donated by the Highway Department, he said, and then worked in the pouring rain with shovels to get the job done. Though the water got high enough to overtop the sandbag wall near the back porch, Grice said no water got into the house.

"If it wasn't for all my friends coming out and helping us, man, we would have been under water. It got up to almost the floorboards in the back," Grice said. "Friends are great. If it wasn't for them, we'd probably be sitting somewhere else right now. Might not be talking to y'all."

After the mandatory evacuation order came down, Grice and his father had fled with their dogs to his mother's home on the other side of the river, then spent several nail-biting days not knowing whether their efforts to keep the house dry had paid off. "My mom's house was the only place we had to go. We were lucky we had that. Our neighbors didn't have that. They were asking us for help and we couldn't do nothing for them. We were worried about our house," Grice said. Some of his friends lost everything in the flood, he said. He's given others money for food. It hurts, but he's happy that his home was spared, and for the friends who helped.

"Everybody came together when we needed it," he said. "It's hard to get people together when they're getting paid, let alone just to help. Maybe America will take a note from small- town Arkansas."

SAVED BY SANDBAGS: Cody Grice said had it not been for the help of friends, "we would have been under water."
  • SAVED BY SANDBAGS: Cody Grice said had it not been for the help of friends, "we would have been under water."

The Sea of Arkansas

South of town, the day after the Black River crested at Pocahontas, state troopers and National Guardsmen manned a roadblock, the Guardsmen in the cab of a brontosaurus-sized high-water truck with a tall air-intake snorkel that could, theoretically, allow the truck to drive underwater. Beyond them, the great Sea of Arkansas stretched to the horizon over what had been fields in the midst of planting season a week before. In the distance, the water was dotted with flooded grain silos, churches and houses. Near Shannon, U.S. Highway 67 was submerged for at least five miles toward Walnut Ridge, the water reportedly 7 feet deep in places. Just up from the roadblock, the water caught the light as it gurgled over the shoulder of the highway, as if over a spillway. Nearby was a soaked house and a car sunk to the axles in the saturated ground. Even where the water had receded, yards and houses and barns had been buried in corn stalks and shucks, washed up from the fields in brown drifts. Closer to Walnut Ridge, it was even worse, the land flatter and lower and more populated, multiplying miseries.

One of those helping lead the Arkansas National Guard's operations in town in the days after the flood was First Lt. Ryan Jones, with the 875th Engineer Battalion. By the time we talked to him, Jones had been on the ground in Pocahontas for almost a week. From a base at the Pocahontas Community Center, his soldiers had worked pretty much around the clock helping the Randolph County Sheriff's Office with evacuations and cleanup while spending their nights on the hard gym floor. A native of Jonesboro, Jones looked young enough that he probably couldn't buy a beer without getting carded. But there he was, marshaling forces with crisp efficiency.

"We're here to help our community," Jones said. "At the end of the day, the Arkansas National Guard is made up of people from this community. We have people in our National Guard unit right now who just live a couple miles down the road. It's neighbors helping neighbors the best they can." The mission in Pocahontas, Jones said, is exactly what the National Guard is all about. While there's not a lot you can say to people who have lost everything, Jones said, he tries to stress that it will get better.

"We try to reassure people that they will make it, and they will be OK," he said. "I know it's really hard. It is. They've lost a lot. But we're trying to the best of our ability to get them comfortable and give them some hope that it will be OK. Maybe not at this time. But it will be OK eventually."

Pocahontas Mayor Kary Story, reached by phone the week after the Black receded, said the city is trying to get back to normal operations. The flood heavily damaged an estimated 50 homes and had soaked countless others to the point of requiring extensive tear-out. There was no good estimate, he said, of the number of businesses that took water, but it was substantial.

Story said that at the time the levee system along the Black was constructed in 1938, east Pocahontas was a low-lying wetland that wasn't really inhabited. Over the years, however, the area has slowly filled in with homes and businesses, development receiving a boost after Walmart built a store there in the 1990s. In the intervening 79 years since the levee along the Black was built, Story said, the landscape has been changed drastically by precision land leveling, further levee construction and dredging of drainage ditches. This year's deluge could have been much worse for the city, Story said, if the levee hadn't breached. "When it did, we watched the water go down two inches per hour. It just sucked it out of here. I was wanting it to be breached, but I don't have any control or authority over that levee system so I can't do anything to it. But, yeah, it was definitely a relief."

Though the city secured and spent $250,000 in grant money to raise certain portions of the levee after the 2011 floods, Story said that he doesn't want to propose a "kneejerk reaction" solution now. A town hall meeting is in the works, with representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers scheduled to be in attendance. "I want to wait until emotions cool down and we can start talking about solutions to this problem," Story said. "I don't want finger pointing and whose levee is high and whose levee costs what. Nobody won in this thing. The people that the levee protected, it didn't protect them well. The farmers to the north suffered losses because of it, farmers to the south suffered losses, and east Pocahontas suffered."

Story said that he's been proud of the reaction by the city and how the townspeople have come together for the good of their neighbors. Like Lt. Jones, he said that the best thing to tell people is, it will get better.

"It's hard for me to say much to them," he said. "I haven't been in their shoes of losing everything, so I don't know how they feel. I know that they've got to keep their heads up. ... We've just got to hold our heads high and fix our lives the best we can."

Happy camper

Up the hill from Black River Overlook Park, where the water still stood high enough to almost touch the nets of basketball goals two days after the worst of the flooding, the former Randolph County Nursing Home was a hive of activity. Closed in 2016, the nursing home had been reopened as a shelter as the storm bore down on the city and the river rose.

The day we visited, the parking lot was full, National Guard Humvees sharing space with tractor-trailers rigs, compact cars and good ol' boy lifted trucks. Legions of volunteers streamed in and out, hauling bleach and Bibles, shovels and rakes, pallets of bottled water and cardboard boxes of wrapped ice cream cones to hand out to evacuees and the all-volunteer staff. There were still over 50 people seeking refuge at the shelter the day Arkansas Times visited, some arriving with not much more than the clothes on their backs.

Outside, at the end of the long covered walkway leading to the door, Arthur Scroggins and Michelle Erickson were sitting in lawn chairs in the sun. Residents of Hardy, they'd been stuck in Poplar Bluff, Mo., for days after the flood, only coming south after the water receded enough to open the roads. They were going to wait another day at the shelter in Pocahontas to let the water go down a bit more, then make a try for their cabin on the Spring River. "We know the cabin hasn't been touched or anything, Scroggins said. "It's just getting there. Hopefully this rain is going to lay off for a while." It was good to be back in Arkansas, they both agreed.

Nearby was Kenny Garrett, a Pocahontas resident who stayed at the shelter for five days after the mandatory evacuation, until the streets to his house were passable. "I checked out this morning, and came right back with some supplies I'd bought out of my own pocket," he said. "Donated them. I know they're shorthanded here."

Garrett, who works as a landscaper, said he'd had a total of 12 hours sleep during the previous week. Anytime you see him, he said, you can be sure there's a coffee cup somewhere nearby. "I'm here until it's over," he said. "I've got a regular job I've got to go back to, but I'll come up here at night. My pockets ain't that deep, but I'll do what I can do."

As we were chatting, Paula Ricker walked up in her scrubs and asked if we knew when the government was coming to help. A home health nurse who lives in Pocahontas, she was there to check on a patient, a man in his 70s whose home had been totally flooded. "He's lost his house," she said. "He's going to have to replace floors and walls and everything, and he's on oxygen 24/7. His daughter is supposed to figure out what to do so he can go back home." As she spoke, two workers in heavy gloves wrestled a gleaming panel of sheet metal from the back of a nearby truck, the metal booming like vaudevillian thunder. "I feel so bad for him," she said. "I'm really close to him because he reminds me of my dad. I'm hoping he can get everything fixed."

Just inside the doors of the shelter at a desk, Marti Little, the volunteer coordinator for the operation, rarely put down her phone. She's a schoolteacher by day, but necessity had turned her into the Decider of this place, part general and part traffic cop, her attention ping-ponging from phone to volunteer and back to phone as she directed resources and guided worried people through the maze of flooded roads that stood between desperation and shelter. She was wearing a T-shirt that said "Happy Camper." She'd been there almost a week by then, working 16-hour-plus days. Asked how much sleep she'd managed to get during her time volunteering there, she could only smile and shake her head.

"We have volunteers working around-the-clock," she said. "Twenty-four hours a day, we have people working here, people working elsewhere, people helping. We're taking donations at any hour." Even after she starts back to school, she said, every waking hour she can spare will be spent at the shelter, until the need there is gone. As she spoke, someone in the lobby's phone rang, and the ringtone was Alanis Morissette singing: "It's like raaaaaiinnnn, on your wedding day ... ." If she noticed it, Little didn't smile.

"In this community, we do all we can," Little said. "A small town is different from Little Rock. Here, most of us know each other. People will open their homes. We've had people come in and say, "If you have anyone who needs a place to stay ... ." We have people staying in churches, in peoples' homes, trying not to take up a bed here."

Then somebody came in requesting phone chargers and Little told them there were none to be had. Then somebody came in with a handful of religious tracts and she pointed him to a table where they could be placed. Then a bin full of fresh laundry rumbled through and she pointed the way. Then somebody came in with a cardboard box full of stuffed toy mooses donated by the local Moose Lodge, and she directed him to people sitting nearby. Then her phone rang and she spoke into it, saying: soap, cleaning supplies, storage tubs, 50-gallon trash bags, nonperishables, socks for the National Guard, crackers are good. Then her phone rang again and she started giving, for the thousandth time, the long and involved directions to come overland from Imboden while dodging the frustrating labyrinth of flooded roads between points A and B, speaking soothingly, a beacon of hope to someone far away.

She turned back to my recorder, but then her phone rang again. Little listened, muttered a hasty apology, then literally ran out the door, phone pressed to her ear, to catch a truck bound on some mission of mercy before it could pull out of the parking lot. And down the hill, out of sight, the swollen Black River poured on toward the sea.

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