The great flood of 2019 has not stopped too many businesses from conducting operations in Fort Smith and Van Buren, but it has created a rallying cry for cooperation.
In addition to more heavy trucks on the roads with the loss of river barge navigation, another impact regionally will come from losses of processed river sand at APAC Central’s Arkhola Sand & Gravel mining operation on the banks of the Arkansas River in Van Buren.
For every river barge moving freight, about 60 heavy trucks are kept off the roads. One barge also carries about 15 rail cars, according to the Arkansas Waterways Commission.
With waters at historic levels, and more to come from upstream, it could be two months or more before barge traffic resumes on the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System. Many in the industry, however, are saying it is still too early to tell because of more rains expected upstream and an already swollen Mississippi River downstream.
Thomas Edgmon, project manager for Steve Beam Construction in Fort Smith, also said it is still too early to tell just how much the floods will impact prices on concrete because of the inundation of Arkhola Sand & Gravel in Van Buren. The plant is still largely under water.
Like many local contractors, Steve Beam Construction is just now able to start the necessary communications with concrete suppliers to discuss the issue of prices and supplies.
In addition to importing concrete at higher prices, alternatives are being considered such as using quarry rock dust, which APAC Central donated for filling sandbags in downtown Fort Smith.
Local developer Rod Coleman of ERC Properties said he expects there won’t be enough suppliers to keep up with the forthcoming demand of materials to renovate the hundreds of flooded homes in Fort Smith alone.
Both the Fort Smith Railroad and the southernmost portion of Arkansas & Missouri Railroad have been closed since May 29. The Fort Smith Railroad, an 18-mile section that serves major manufacturers like Gerdau Macsteel and Pernod Ricard, could open back up this week.
David Kerr, an A&M Excursion Train conductor, said the A&M’s sightseeing tour from Springdale to Van Buren has remained open. Only one low-lying section of track at Clear Creek near Mountainburg is known to halt service when covered by water, and that rarely happens, he said. The A&M Excursion Train carries between 35,000 and 40,000 passengers a year, according to A&M Railroad Chairman Caren Kraska.
The Port of Fort Smith and the Port of Van Buren, both operated by Five Rivers Distribution, have both been submerged since Memorial Day weekend. Five Rivers President Marty Shell told the Fort Smith Port Authority on Thursday it was “catastrophic devastation” at both ports and it could be months before they are operational again. Millions of dollars in raw materials, including tons of bulk steel wire and materials to make chicken feed, were stored at the two ports.
“The flooding has impacted literally everyone in some way,” OK Foods spokesperson Jordan Johnson said. “It’s presented challenges to OK Foods, but we’re here to help stand with and lift up the community around us, and rally around each other.”
Johnson said OK Foods has reached out to the 17 employees of Five Rivers Distribution to offer employment until the ports of Fort Smith and Van Buren is once again operational. Likewise, Jordan said OK Foods has reached out to others in the Fort Smith area affected by the Arkansas River flooding with either job opportunities or food at drop-off locations for food and clothing to displaced residents.
Van Buren Advertising and Promotions Executive Director Maryl Purvis said the flooding has only had a minimal effect on the city’s downtown restaurants and shops. She feels a larger impact has been felt across the river in Fort Smith because of the closure of the Garrison Avenue bridge to vehicle traffic because of flooded roads around Dora and Moffett. While the bridge remains open to foot traffic, westbound lanes were opened Monday.
The Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce president and the Fort Smith city administrator have both encouraged residents to visit downtown Fort Smith to see the floodwaters and do some shopping while in town.
“Please don’t stay away from our businesses,” Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce President Tim Allen said. “Come downtown and encourage other people to spend money and let’s try and stabilize our downtown economy again.”
Julie Murray, president of the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce, said the anxiety level for business owners has been high as flood waters have continued their threat to take over more homes and businesses. Waters have reached several feet high at the city’s floodgates.
Times Record reporter Jadyn Watson-Fisher contributed to this report.