Saline River floods homes following wettest February on record
Mar 8, 2018, 10:10

The only road into Dennis Holland’s house on the Saline River is by boat.

As rains have continued in the last week, Holland has watched the river rise to levels he’s never seen before.

“It’s the highest I’ve ever seen it,” he said. “My bank is five feet, and my house is seven feet off the ground, and (the water) came to the bottom of the house.”

Water from the swollen Saline River pours over the roadway from Ashley into Bradley County. Officials with the National Weather Service said the waters were driven upward by unprecedented rains in central Arkansas. (VERSHAL HOGAN/News Observer)
Holland was taking the opportunity a break in the rain afforded him to check in on the residence Monday, making sure the water had stayed under it. He’d already emptied his refrigerator and freezer, and the building was without power.

The Saline River’s floodwaters have made their way into homes and camps in western Ashley County and eastern Bradley County.  (VERSHAL HOGAN/News Observer)
At least at that point, the floors his father built three decades ago were still dry.

“I’ve been lucky,” he said. “And I am lucky I had a father who knew how to build for the river.”

Holland isn’t alone in fighting to keep the rising water out of his house, though many other camp and residence owners in western Ashley County and eastern Drew and Bradley counties haven’t been as lucky.

Ashley County Judge Jim Hudson declared the county a disaster area Friday in response to the flooding, water levels he said he’s never observed before.

“There are people with water in their houses who have never had water in their houses,” he said.

Jeff and Teresa Walsh said the Saline River camp that has been in their family for 60 years hasn’t flooded this time, but they had neighbors who woke up with water in their house Feb. 28, and by the time they left it had risen to their knees.

“When you have water that deep in your home, it is tragic,” Teresa said. “There are a lot of elderly people who have retired or made their homes here.”

Ashley County Office of Emergency Management Director Tawanna Miller said she has only received a few notifications about flood-related damage since the flood event started, but so far there have been no reports of injury or serious incident.

“We are going to have to wait until the water goes down,” she said. “Then we can start getting in there and really seeing what happened, and the people can start looking at their places.”

While there aren’t any official flood gauges in Ashley County, the Saline River gauge at Rye — 30 miles north of Fountain Hill — was 28.16 feet at 2 p.m. Monday, more than two feet above the flood stage of 26 feet. By 3 p.m. Tuesday, it had fallen to 27.59 feet.

National Weather Service Senior Service Hydrologist Tabitha Clarke said the rise on the Saline River was attributable to 15 inches of rain in 10 days, the culmination of the wettest February central Arkansas has ever seen.

While rises in some waterways have coincided with releases from lakes further north, the hydrological impact on the Saline is attributable to rain aline, she said.

“It is not controlled on the Saline; there is no flood control,” Clarke said. “If the water is going to fall, it is going to come (down) eventually.”

One of the issues is that the Ouachita River is also on the rise, Clarke said.

“When the Saline empties into the Ouachita, there is not much room for it,” she said. “It slows down, backs up a little bit.”

The Ouachita is headed for what Clarke said would be one of its top five crests of all time.

At the lower Felsenthal Lock and Dam, the Ouachita River was at 83.29 feet at 3 p.m. Tuesday. Flood stage at that location is 70 feet.

The rising waters have forced the closure of most roads at Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge.

“Access is difficult, and there are only a few boat ramps out, and as it continues to rise, it will be more and more difficult to access,” Refuge Manager Michael Stroeh said. “People generally launch off the sides of the road. Travel is limited overall; because of flooding, you just can’t get to places.”

The record high water at Felsenthal is 88 feet, and the water is currently predicted to reach 86 feet, Stroeh said.

“If it gets to 86, it will be probably within the top five floods we have seen here,” he said. “It is a big one.

“It’s important to remember, though, that these forests are adapted to flooding, and the wildlife is adapted to it.”

Hudson said the that in addition to the Saline River, the Lucas Pond spillway is an issue as well.

Miller said the important thing is to remember that things will get better.

“We will overcome this,” she said. “This is just devastating right now, but we will overcome this.”

Other notable rises have included Bayou Bartholomew at Wilmot — which at 26.65 feet Tuesday was less than a foot shy of its record 27.4 feet set in April 1991. The bayou was also 25.32 feet at Beekman, where the flood stage is 15 feet.

The water is up on the bayou, but is not impacting homes, Miller said.

“They all have their sand sandbagged,” she said. “Everybody pretty much knows the routine when it starts coming up.”

Those who have flooding damage should take photos and contact Miller at 870-853-2004.

Val Gaught contributed to this report

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