A Fort Smith woman died early Saturday after record rainfall caused a flash flood that closed streets in the city and left more than 60 homes damaged in Sebastian County, officials said.
After several days of on-and-off rainfall, a crush of thunderstorms early Saturday produced high water on the northern side of Fort Smith and around 4:45 a.m. that water washed 47-year-old Debra Stevens' vehicle from the road, Fort Smith police spokesman officer Aric Mitchell said.
Stevens, who was delivering newspapers for the Southwest Times Record in the 5800 block of Kinkhead Avenue near the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith campus, was trapped in her vehicle and died after her car was carried into some woods, Mitchell said.
Her death came on the heels of several days of heavy rainfall. More than 9 inches fell in the area between Thursday and Saturday morning, said Chuck Hodges, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service's Tulsa office.
Fort Smith more than doubled the 30-year record amount of rainfall in a single day Saturday when 4.04 inches fell on the riverside city, Hodges said. More rain is in the forecast.
Sebastian County Emergency Management Director Kendall Beam said County Judge David Hudson issued an emergency declaration after 38 homes flooded in Fort Smith, 19 flooded in Lavaca and five in Barling. Barling and Lavaca are near Fort Smith.
Beam said Saturday morning that he and other emergency-management officials had begun assessing flood damage at homes and reporting it to the state's Emergency Management Department. Less than nine hours later, the damage assessment was complete, he said.
"That's pretty fast," Beam said. "We don't mess around anymore."
The city had significant flooding in late May and June this year when rain in Oklahoma and Kansas forced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release water from a hydroelectric dam near Tulsa into the Arkansas River. That then caused record flooding along the river stretching from Fort Smith through the state to the southeast border.
Declaring an emergency and quickly preparing a damage assessment will help residents to obtain aid for lost belongings and damaged property, officials said Saturday.
Mitchell said an American Red Cross station was open in Grand Avenue Baptist Church in downtown Fort Smith. The Fire Department had transported several families there after high water forced them to leave their homes, Mitchell said.
"You have to act quickly because it's flash flooding, so there's no warning," Mitchell said. "We're trying to get the word out to people."
All of the flooded-closed streets in Fort Smith had reopened by 3 p.m. Saturday, Mitchell said, but the National Weather Service forecast said more rain is likely in coming days.
Hodges said Fort Smith and the surrounding area likely will face chances of thunderstorms today, Monday and Tuesday morning before the sun returns. He said, however, that forecasters don't expect the rainfall to be as heavy as it was Saturday morning.
"But with that much rain already fallen, it wouldn't take a whole lot to keep causing problems," Hodges said.
He said the coming storm systems should not produce much high wind, and most of the severe weather should stay west of Fort Smith.
If more flash flooding occurs, Mitchell said he wanted to emphasize the danger of driving through high water.
"All it takes is one wrong decision," Mitchell said. "When you're caught in one of those situations, even when you're just out doing your job, if you're not sure what you're driving into, do not try it."
The National Weather Service said Saturday's storms also caused flooding across sections of west-central Arkansas.
The heavy rainfall led to a nearly 10-inch rise in water levels along Richland Creek near Witts Spring in Searcy County in northern Arkansas, the weather service said.
Information for this article was contributed by The Associated Press.
Metro on 08/25/2019