An economically struggling Arkansas city in the midst of a revitalization plan continued flooding Tuesday as the Arkansas River crested its banks, but local officials said even after the waters recede, the community’s resilience will bolster recovery.
Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington said federal and state aid will be crucial to help the town of about 42,000 clean up and rebuild after the record-breaking flooding.
The river isn’t expected to crest at its high of 51 feet (15 meters) until about 1 a.m. Thursday in the city, which is located about 40 miles (65 kilometers) southeast of Little Rock. The Arkansas River has been flooding for almost two weeks, after intense rainfall in Oklahoma and Kansas forced officials to release water from a strained dam northwest of Tulsa.
Last week, an evacuation order was issued for about 550 homes within the levee system, said Karen Blevins, the county’s director of emergency management. Because many of the flooded homes are within the levee system, it’s possible that homeowners have flood insurance, though it’s unclear how many actually do.
This weekend, Washington went door to door in some neighborhoods to warn people about a National Weather Service-issued flash flood warning.
Laurie Driver, spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers, said there’s concern throughout the state about the strength of the levees, which are being strained with more water for longer periods of time than ever before.
In 1927, a massive flood swallowed areas of downtown Pine Bluff, after which the community and the Corps constructed levees and a navigation system across the region. If the levees do fail in Pine Bluff, that would be devastating for the city, which has its share of difficulties even in dry weather.
According to government data, the unemployment rate in Pine Bluff peaked at almost 12% in January 2011, and hovered around 10% until mid-2014, though now it’s around 5%. The median household income between 2013 and 2017 was about $32,000, about $11,000 below the state average.
But even with the threat of catastrophic flooding and the institutional economic disadvantages, city officials said Pine Bluff can still recover and rebuild.
Washington is overseeing a downtown revitalization plan, which includes a new aquatic center scheduled to open at the end of June, a new library and upgrades to parks and recreation areas.
Washington said of the city whose fates rose on the expansion of post-World War II manufacturing but suffered as the region de-industrialized.
At the First United Methodist Church, Pastor Michael Morey said the city has just recovered from a tornado that injured several people and damaged two apartment complexes in early May.
Now, he said, the community is turning its recovery efforts to the flood, which he said he doesn’t think will have a long-term impact “on whether Pine Bluff becomes a vital thriving community again.”
When the floods recede, Washington anticipates much of the cleanup to be focused around the city’s riverfront park, which has already flooded.
Officials are relying heavily on the prospect of state and federal funding, which will come if President Trump declares a major disaster, as he’s done in some counties in Oklahoma. Vice President Mike Pence toured flood-damaged Tulsa Tuesday, and officials say across Oklahoma, severe weather has killed six people.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson visited Pine Bluff Tuesday to assess the damage. He said he was impressed with the community response to the flood. “They’re very resilient, and I think they’re prepared to deal with it,” Hutchinson said. But he also cautioned that lower income residents, like many in Pine Bluff, will have challenges rebuilding.
“They can’t tap into reserves as easily to cover the immediate expenses of rehabilitating the home,” he said.
Washington said the strength of the city has demonstrated Pine Bluff’s ability to rebuild.
“I think we can overcome this,” Washington said. “We’re going to keep Pine Bluff moving forward.”