FORT SMITH — The Arkansas governor and U.S. senators from the state fully expect to qualify for federal assistance from the impact of a 500-year flood.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson in a news conference with U.S. senators John Boozman and Tom Cotton and two congressional representatives Thursday afternoon on the Garrison Avenue Bridge in Fort Smith said he expects the state to reach the Federal Emergency Management Agency threshold for assistance based on his experience and President Donald Trump reaching out to him in reference to the record-breaking flood on the Arkansas River.
The flood, which reached Fort Smith around May 23 and is expected to impact all communities on the river, had affected about 500 homes on Thursday afternoon and has caused the state economy to lose an estimated $23 million per day, Hutchinson said.
The stretch of river in Arkansas first swelled in Fort Smith after U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operators were forced to release large amounts of water from upstream dams after heavy rainfall. The floods have prompted Hutchinson to list 15 Arkansas counties in a disaster declaration. Hutchinson on Wednesday committed $350,000 in state financial assistance for flood mitigation.
The river on Sunday broke the flood record of 38.1 feet at the Van Buren gauge. National Weather Service forecasters on Thursday estimated that section of river to swell to 40.8 feet on Saturday afternoon.
The Fort Smith region is simply the first Arkansas community impacted by the historic flood — Hutchinson on Thursday said he expects to add more counties to his disaster declaration as the river continues to crest throughout the state.
“It’s here now, but it’s going to be going to Dardanelle, it’s going to go down the river to Morrilton and then to Little Rock and then to farm country beyond,” he said.
Trump on Tuesday afternoon tweeted that he told Hutchinson FEMA and the federal government would “do whatever is necessary to help out” with the floods.
“He really wanted to learn more about the impact of it and how we were dealing with it,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson during the press conference said FEMA agents on Thursday were in the Fort Smith region assessing damage.
Though he couldn’t give a timeline for the FEMA assessment, he said the agents will be able to more fully assess the damage as the flood recedes.
Boozman, R-Ark., said he as a federal official will be in charge of getting federal resources — including FEMA assistance — to Arkansas. He also listed the Corps of Engineers and other military personnel and the U.S. Department of Agriculture as other federal resources the state could need during the flood response.
“We’ll quickly try to assess the damage and take stock of weather and any federal responses necessary in addition to the state and the local response,” said Cotton, R-Ark. “I expect federal authorities to be working in tandem with state and local authorities to take stock very quickly so that we can get people the aid that they’re entitled to under federal law and that they deserve as taxpayers.”
Hutchinson said cooperation between local and state officials with FEMA into the beginning of June is “the most important thing” they can have with the damage assessment. He also said Fort Smith and Van Buren residents should watch the crest level on the river through Sunday.
U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-District 3, stressed the importance of flood relief to the Fort Smith region as it relates to the whole state. He said the closure of transportation vessels such as Five Rivers Distribution and the Garrison Avenue Bridge have a ripple effect throughout the state.
“The people (Five Rivers) supplies all the way up to northwest Arkansas are completely out of business right now,” Womack said. “It is our plan and it is our goal to rebuild and make sure they are being made whole again.”
Hutchinson, Boozman and Cotton held the press conference after an aerial tour of the river from Little Rock to Fort Smith. Boozman said he saw areas “you simply would not believe would be flooded.”
“I’ve been speaking to local mayors and county judges and emergency officials. It’s not despair — it’s hope, strength and resilience,” Cotton said. “Arkansans are coming together to help each other, opening their homes, opening their churches, providing jobs so people can put food on the table. I expect the government’s response in Washington to be just as strong for Arkansans as they are for each other.”
Hutchinson said officials will have to learn from this flood event, as it is unlike any they have ever seen.
“Everyone is working together, and we’re committed to do whatever it takes with the governor’s leadership to get this done,” Boozman said.