FORT SMITH, Ark. (KNWA/FOX24) — It’s been four years since the city of Fort Smith was rocked by a once-in-a-lifetime flood. May 2019 is a time many won’t forget in the River Valley.
“The flooding was so massive, it appeared like a big freight train traveling down the Arkansas River,” said Fort Smith Mayor George McGill, who was only a few months into his first term as mayor when the river started rising. “It was unbelievable.”
“That is a historic event,” said Dan Skoff, Chief Meteorologist at KNWA/FOX24.
Skoff said Northwest Arkansas and the River Valley gets all types of weather, but he’s never seen anything like the 2019 flood before or since. He said the weather was extremely active in May 2019.
“There was a lot of severe weather, there were multiple weather events that moved in,” he said. “It really all started a couple of months earlier.”
When looking back at the rainfall totals for that month, Fort Smith actually saw regular rain totals. However, several states away, it was a different story.
“We were realizing there was a lot of rain that was falling in eastern Colorado and a lot of people don’t realize that the Arkansas River Basin actually originates from eastern Colorado, and eventually Northeast Oklahoma, which saw so much rain in May,” he said.
“I spoke with a member of the corps of engineers and he said, ‘Mayor, you have to understand where Fort Smith sits topography-wise when it comes to floods,'” remembered McGill. “He said, ‘Visualize a bathtub and where the drain is, that’s Fort Smith, Arkansas.'”
The excess rain started draining down to Fort Smith in mid-May, just in time for Memorial Day weekend.
“The Thursday before Memorial Day, you can imagine is a very busy time,” said David Bushkuhl, who is the general manager at Eastside Liquor in Fort Smith.
He said where the store is located makes it prone to floods, so it has back up plans in place to help protect their inventory.
“We have a big storage building that has a flood panel that goes up,” he said.
Warnings were coming well before the flood started, so they shut down early that weekend and started moving inventory into that storage building well in advance. However, Mother Nature threw them a gut punching curve ball that struck based on a matter of inches.
Bushkuhl showed KNWA/FOX24 the storage building and explained how it worked.
“We put the flood panels in and tighten them up, and it is 39 feet tall,” he said. “When the water went over, that’s when it got into our storage building.”
Skoff said the river reached its crest on June 1 at a record-setting 40.79 feet, which was just enough to breach the flood wall on the Eastside Liquor storage building, meaning everything had to be thrown out.
“We got escorts out to the to the dump with ABC, and they watched them destroy a lot of liquor,” said Bushkuhl.
Videos and pictures from the flood show many homes halfway submerged in water. The water almost reached the top of the River Front Park amphitheater. Many of the roads that connected Fort Smith to the outside world were completely blocked.
The flood caused a lot of damage throughout the city of Fort Smith, but from the flood waters, the community rose up to the challenge and worked together to rebuild.
“We had sewer systems fail and pump stations fail,” said McGill. “We had streets that were inundated with water where you cannot pass through.”
“The temperatures were already upper 90s even into 100 degrees, so really that mold and mildew set in the homes very, very quickly,” remembered Shea Foldvary, president and CEO of the United Way of Fort Smith.
At the time, Foldvary was the Resource Development Director for United Way. The nonprofit was crucial in organizing volunteers and providing resources to the community to start the recovery process.
“We teamed up with Eastside Baptist Church here in Fort Smith, and they gave us an opportunity to utilize their gym for our volunteer intake center,” he said. “We had over 1000 volunteers that registered and that we could really get out in the community and do cleanup.”
They also raised money to help people recover.
“We had about a six-hour telethon that raised over $100,000 to go back to those families impacted,” he said.
Four years later and McGill and Foldvary both feel Fort Smith has bounced back and rebuilt.
“Stuff is beginning to come around and we’ll be reimbursed for the millions of dollars we had to spend out of our own treasury,” said McGill.
Many lessons were also learned during the flood that came in handy when future obstacles hit Fort Smith.
“When we look at tornado devastation, or we look at COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been able to really respond to that,” said Foldvary.
From the day the flood waters started arriving, to today, one thing has remained true that McGill said he is very proud of.
“The thing that I had a chance to see lived out in person for many, many days is the resilience of the people in the kindness of the people, and the generosity,” he said.