JACKSON COUNTY, AR (KAIT) - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has given the go-ahead for officials to cancel the voluntary evacuation for a levee area along the White River, Jackson County Judge Jeff Phillips said Saturday.
Crews with the Arkansas National Guard spent Saturday working to help the levee, trying to keep it from being compromised even more by the swollen White River.
On Friday, Jackson Co. Judge Phillips told Region 8 News that the Corps of Engineers and prisoners with the Arkansas Department of Correction are working to fill bags hoping the Arkansas National Guard Black Hawk helicopter can come back Saturday.
Judge Phillips said they’re trying to cover the area with plastic so rain won’t wash the fresh dirt and sand away.
On Thursday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson sent a Black Hawk helicopter from the Arkansas National Guard to help load sandbags to be placed on the levee.
Phillips said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provided the 3,000-pound sandbags, while V-Tech Sand donated the sand.
He said the help has been definitely appreciated, especially the help from Gov. Hutchinson.
“It is incredible. We are so thankful, that he is so gracious and that he cares about Arkansas and he cares about us and it’s a heartfelt thanks to the Governor of Arkansas,” Phillips said.
Phillips said he believes the sandbags should help buy some time in allowing the area to dry up as the levee commission, state and federal officials work on the levee.
Jackson County officials continue to keep a watchful eye on the water level at the White River as word about a 2017 report on a levee provided details about problems in the area.
Phillips said he found out about the levee erosion Feb. 7 and contacted Rep. Rick Crawford, the OEM director and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about the issue.
Phillips said he has asked what to do and where the water will go if the levee were to fail.
“The levee district has spent over $100,000 on that section of levee and so, it has been an issue and they have tried to fix it. I personally think it just didn’t have enough time for the grass to grow and for it to settle before we got this kind of rainfall, so I think if we would’ve had a little more time, then I think it would do better than it’s doing right now,” Phillips said.
Phillips told Region 8 News that there is not an immediate plan to fix the levee if it failed until the water dries.
However, Phillips said officials will be meeting with levee district officials to find out what the next step will be including receiving federal funding for the repairs.
A May 2017 report from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, called the Levee System Summary, Village Creek White River Mayberry Levee, shows the project provides flood risk management for 34,000 acres of land and was first created in December 1944.
“Although the Village Creek White River Mayberry Levee District performed well during the 2008 and 2011 high-water events, the condition of the levee is deteriorating. The risk associated with the levee is considered to be high due to potential poor performance and moderate associated consequences. There are three full depth cuts which are unlikely to be closed by the sponsor during an extreme loading event and high water/high river velocities on the White River are eroding the bank and this erosion is within five feet of the levee at one location,” Army Corps of Engineers officials said in the report. “It is important the river bank is protected from direct flow from the river and/or the levee be realigned/moved farther away from the top bank so that additional erosion can be prevented or minimized.”
A breach of the levee could create major problems, according to the report.
“Any of the risks noted in the table below could possibly lead to a sudden breach of the levee, resulting in significant property damages and potentially the loss of life. The leveed area consists primary of farmland with some homes. Most of the homes are on the outer edge of the leveed area and the residents will have a short exit route out of the leveed area,” the report noted. “A levee breach would likely result in surface erosion of the top soil and/or sediment deposits rendering the land useless for farming for one or more growing seasons. Consequences to infrastructure in the event of a breach are estimated to be over $22 million and over 400 structures (agriculture losses are not included in the estimate.)”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Little Rock District shows the level was rated “unacceptable,” in a June 30, 2015 inspection.
On Thursday, the National Weather Service said the White River at Newport had entered the “major flood stage,” posing problems for those living in Jackson and Independence Counties.
Robert Gilliaum said Wednesday that while he has lived in the area for decades, he has not seen water levels reach this high.
“If this thing washes out, I have eight hours from the time it washes out until it gets here, so the folks south of me need to be prepared to move real quick like,” Gilliaum said.
Another area resident, Betty Faust, said she is one of about 30 homeowners in the area to be impacted by the situation.
Faust told Little Rock television station KARK that she spent Wednesday getting what she could get out of her home, filling a U-Haul and trucks to get the items to safety.
“I didn’t know there was anything going wrong. Last night, the mayor called and told us about it,” Faust said.
Meanwhile, an American Red Cross shelter opened Wednesday night in Newport in anticipation of a levee breach.
Cindy Tedder, who is a shelter coordinator for Northeast Arkansas, said the shelter is helping people in their time of need.
“We’ve got resources if they’ve got flooding in the house. We will have clean up kits with mops, shovels, brooms, cleaning supplies, anything that they would need to help get their homes back in order and restored,” Tedder said.
The shelter at the First Baptist Church Life Center in Newport will remain open at least until Thursday morning, depending on the levee situation and if the water is receding, Tedder said.
Phillips said officials are also monitoring the situation and are in a waiting game, with the rains playing a huge role in everything.
“There really isn’t much we can do. The ground is too saturated to get any heavy equipment back here without causing more damage than we already have,” Phillips said.
After the recent rain in Region 8, Phillips began advising some residents to evacuate.
Phillips told Region 8 News Tuesday night that the levee south of Highway 224 had eroded and was in danger of failure.
Judge Phillips warned that if the levee fails, the water could go south towards Woodruff County then could back up all the way to Highway 14 to Highway 17.
He declared an emergency Tuesday night and advised people living in those areas to leave as a precaution.
He adds that it was strictly voluntary and that people in Woodruff County should also take caution.
Crews began setting up sandbags Wednesday morning at the Erwin Fire Station.
The National Weather Service stated the last time the river rose above 28 feet was in December 2001 and March 2002.