The Arkansas River has begun receding and conditions are improving, but the water is still dangerous and should be avoided, authorities said Sunday.
Pine Bluff and Pendleton were still in major flood stage, but the water levels along the Arkansas River had dropped below flood stage in Van Buren, Ozark and Dardanelle.
In Faulkner County, officials had feared an imminent breach of the levee at Lollie Bottoms late Thursday, but by Sunday it appeared the levee would hold, despite being eroded to the point that barely 4 feet of it remained to hold back the river.
"The water is off the levee," County Judge Jim Baker said. "The grand ole levee held."
The county judge credited "divine intervention" for the levee holding over the weekend.
"It was by the grace of God," Baker said. "I know it was nothing that we did. I have seen divine intervention in my lifetime, but this was the biggest."
Lollie Road in Conway is expected to be open to the public this morning.
The county's focus will now shift to cleanup, especially in the Lake Conway area, Baker said.
"There is so much destruction there," Baker said. "It was bigger than anything we could have anticipated. Nobody saw it coming."
President Donald Trump on Saturday approved Gov. Asa Hutchinson's request for more than $27 million to meet the housing needs of Arkansans across eight flooded counties after the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management was able to collect recovery data last week.
"If you have any damage, then you need to take record of it and contact your local emergency management agency because we are in the process of getting federal assistance," agency spokesman Melody Daniel said.
In a letter that Hutchinson sent Friday to Trump, he estimated that the state will need more than $8 million in cleanup funds and $100 million for infrastructure repairs. That estimate could change as water levels continue to drop and reveal damage, Hutchinson said.
The Arkansas River will continue to drop in the coming days, but the water is still unsafe, officials said.
"Even after we get below flood stage, it could be several weeks to a month before it's safe to navigate the Arkansas River," said Jeff Hood, meteorologist with National Weather Service in North Little Rock. "It's easy to look at the charts and see the water dropping and think it's safe. We are improving, but we still have a large body of water rushing down the river."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a small-craft warning after the speed of the Arkansas River reached 70,000 cubic feet per second, and that isn't expected to be lifted anytime soon.
"The water is moving fast, and debris is also in there," Corps spokesman Laurie Driver said. "If your boat isn't larger than a tugboat, then you shouldn't be on the water."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates it might be a month or longer before the small-craft advisory is lifted.
"Take for example Dardanelle, which is below flood stage, is currently at 250,000 [cubic feet per second]," Hood said of the river's speed. "It will be at least into July before it's safe to navigate the water."
Steve Owen, general manager of Little Rock Yacht Club near Pinnacle Mountain in western Pulaski County, said the high-speed water hadn't stopped boat owners from enjoying the sunny weather.
"The parking lot is actually pretty full," Owen said. "People are just sitting on the back of their boats enjoying the weather. You can get on the boat from the slips, but will probably be two or three weeks before they can go out on the water."
Fuel sales for the the Little Rock Yacht Club will be hurt by the small-craft advisory, but most of the funding comes from slip rentals, Owen said.
"The water is moving too fast right now, and smaller boats are harder to handle at that speed," Owen said.
The industries on the river might be able to navigate the waters sooner because tugboats can travel when the river is moving at about 150,000 cubic feet per second.
"The company can make those decisions on a case-by-case basis," Driver said.
The Corps of Engineers will also have to make sure its locks are serviceable.
"We have 13 locks on the river," Driver said. "Four locks are operational right now. We have to make sure they are debris-free and the equipment is serviceable. It could take three weeks or more."
For river businesses like the Little Rock Yacht Club, the next couple of days will be dedicated to cleanup.
"Every time a flood comes, it leaves behind mud and sand, and we are pressure-washing the area now," Owen said. "We had a couple of light poles get pushed down and our flag post got pulled down as well, but once the water lowers, we will pull it back up."
Meteorologists at the National Weather Service said Arkansas should see mostly sunshine for the next week.
"Sunshine is the best friend we got right now," Baker said.
Driver said that for now, it's safer to just avoid the Arkansas River.
"We got plenty of lakes to go to in this state, and I recommended using them," Driver said. "The water is a little high on some of those lakes, but it's much safer than the Arkansas River."
State Desk on 06/10/2019