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A classic Johnny Cash lyric asks the question, "How high's the water, Mama?"

The song is written from a child's viewpoint as a family experiences flooding.

As the water rises foot by foot, the song tells of increasing devastation.

First, the water is "over all the wheat and the oats." Then the farmer loses his bees, the chickens take to the trees and the cow's "in water up past her knees."

By the time the water reaches the level in the song title, "Five Feet High and Rising," the family has "got to head for higher ground" and "can't come back till the water comes down."

A lot of Arkansas families can relate today to the lyric written long ago by Cash, an Arkansas native.

For weeks now, the Arkansas River has been on a tear, first flooding the Fort Smith area, then threatening Dardanelle and Conway and moving on to North Little Rock, Pine Bluff and points south.

All along the way, the river swelled to record levels, the water roiling and challenging levees and anything else in its path.

Homes and businesses and farmland still stand in the river's overflow, places where people can't go back quite yet.

They can't imagine what they'll find when they do get back. Or how long it will take to recover. Or if they can recover.

That's true whether it is a family in a low-income neighborhood or a wealthy homeowner with a once-prized river view. The river didn't discriminate.

Far from the least of the problems is the obvious impact of all this rain and floodwater on agriculture and river-related commerce. Farmers can't plant in water-soaked fields and barges can't ply a raging river.

Even those of us who don't live near the river will eventually feel that impact in the prices we pay.

And the state is already experiencing a downtick in tourism because of the flooding.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson has called the widespread flooding the most impactful natural disaster Arkansas has seen since he's been governor.

"We've had floods, we've had tornadoes, but we've never had anything as devastating as this historic flood that has reached levels that nobody has anticipated before," Hutchinson said last week as he toured damage in Jefferson County.

He also recounted for reporters that the state had been preparing for weeks for the flooding, caused not just by rainfall in Arkansas but also by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' release of water from flood-control lakes in Oklahoma and Kansas because of heavy rains there.

"We're in new territory that we haven't seen before," Hutchinson said.

"How long will it take for this historic, record flood to recede? Well, we'll just have to wait and see, and a lot of that depends on things that are out of our control, like the weather."

How high's the water, mama?

The folks who officially answer that question are those in the National Weather Service as well as in emergency management for the state and its cities and counties.

They have been working overtime these past weeks as they kept an eye on water levels and the threatened levees, warning some Arkansans to head for higher ground.

Local law enforcement, other emergency service providers and more have been out in force all along the river.

They're not the only ones whose work during this unfolding crisis should be acknowledged. There were countless others, including many volunteers who filled sandbags to pack against weakened levees or protect their neighbors' property.

Local reporters and meteorologists did their jobs, getting the word to Arkansas' people day in and day out as the flooding approached and its impact revealed.

As the water recedes, even more people are called upon to help.

For example, high school athletes in Fort Smith showed up to haul debris out of water-soaked homes. Family and friends are pitching in all along the river to clean the mud out.

That's the sort of neighbor-to-neighbor assistance that will continue well past the immediate crisis, as will the work by cities and counties and the state to repair the levees, roads and other public infrastructure.

Federal help is reportedly on the way, too. President Donald Trump has approved Gov. Hutchinson's request to declare the Arkansas River flooding a major disaster. That should mean more federal aid for recovery.

Hutchinson has preliminarily estimated the need at more than $8 million for cleanup and $100 million for infrastructure repairs.

Most likely, it will be more.

The truth is that no one can put an accurate price tag on what has been forever lost or what it will take to "recover."

Commentary on 06/12/2019

Print Headline: Flood's impact won't recede quickly

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