The Arkansas River neared a historic crest Wednesday in Arkansas’ second-largest city, but officials said the levee system was “performing admirably” from the rush of water coming downstream from rain-soaked Oklahoma and Kansas.
Still, the river was nearly twice the level it was 10 days ago, widespread flooding persisted in Fort Smith, and heavy rainfall was expected to make matters worse. Forecasters said flash flooding could be severe because the excess water has nowhere to drain.
“Just because the river has crested doesn’t mean we’re out of danger,” said Col. Bob Dixon of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Dixon said the levee system will be strained as the water moves downstream into Arkansas, and record crests are predicted at several sites along the river. Two levees have already been topped in rural areas of Arkansas.
Swollen rivers are also causing problems along the Nebraska-Iowa border, where some residents are facing evacuations just weeks after thousands of people in the region were forced from their homes because of flooding.
Dixon said the water in Fort Smith should soon begin receding, but he said that would likely take weeks. The river was at about 40 feet (12 meters) on Wednesday, breaking the previous record crest of 38 feet (11.5 meters) that was set in 1945.
At least one death has been blamed on the flooding. The Arkansas Department of Emergency Management said it expects “several hundred” homes will be affected by the flooding.
The rush of water is coming as the Army Corps of Engineers releases water from a hydroelectric dam northwest of Tulsa, Oklahoma, to help drain the swollen Keystone Lake reservoir. The reservoir drains a watershed of more than 22,000 square miles (57,000 square kilometers) in areas of northeastern Oklahoma and southeastern Kansas that have been hit by heavy rain.
The water is being released from the reservoir at 275,000 cubic feet per second (7,787 cubic meters), roughly the amount of water needed to fill three Olympic-sized swimming pools. The Corps said Wednesday that the releases would be reduced by Saturday to 150,000 cubic feet per second (4247 cubic meters).
The release of water from the Keystone Dam is necessary to prevent the reservoir from spilling over the flood-control structure, which would allow floodwaters to flow uncontrolled down the river, according to Preston Chasteen, deputy chief of public affairs for the Corps’ Tulsa District.
“The whole purpose of a dam is to capture that flood water and not let it run freely down the river,” he said Tuesday. “If these dams weren’t in place to control these releases, I think the circumstances would be far worse than they currently are.”
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma said Wednesday that the additional flow in the Arkansas River has strained a levee system built in the 1940s that protects residential areas. Inhofe, a former mayor of Tulsa, said “there have been problems,” but that the levees are “still performing.”
Associated Press writer Jill Bleed contributed to this report from Little Rock, Arkansas.