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story.lead_photo.caption The Arkansas River runs high Thursday morning between Burns Park and the state Capitol as water from Oklahoma continues to flow into Arkansas. The river is expected to reach record highs over the weekend and into next week. - Photo by Staton Breidenthal

The rain-swollen Arkansas River will give rise to record flooding in the state beginning early Monday, according to the National Weather Service.

Flooding was already occurring Thursday along the river at Fort Smith and Van Buren, and the water will keep rising until Memorial Day, according to the weather service.

The river is expected to crest at 41 feet at Van Buren on Monday as floodwater continues to rush into Arkansas from Oklahoma. That could flood homes and businesses in Fort Smith, across the river from Van Buren.

The predicted crest is 19 feet above flood stage and 10 feet above major flood stage.

It will break the record of 38.1 feet set April 16, 1945, according to the weather service.

"This is putting it 3 feet above the previous flood record," said David Jankowski, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Tulsa.

"Listen to the officials," he said. "Anyone in the flood plains stay weather aware. Be careful. Turn around, don't drown."

Because the river has never reached that level, Jankowski said the weather service can't accurately predict what sort of damage could occur.

The Arkansas River causes "near catastrophic flooding" at 37 feet, according to the weather service's website, water.weather.gov/ahps.

At 37 feet, the port of Fort Smith and nearby businesses could be severely flooded, according to the website. Several residential subdivisions around Fort Smith could also flood. Backwater flooding could inundate trailer parks next to Lee Creek.

"This is an extremely dangerous and life-threatening situation," according to the weather service.

The river is expected to be at 34 feet at Van Buren today. That's 3 feet above major flood stage.

The county judge in Sebastian County, across the river from Van Buren, has declared a state of emergency.

Carl Geffken, the Fort Smith city administrator, said the city was preparing for a flood similar to the one in 1990, when the river reached 36 feet.

Then the National Weather Service changed the forecast Thursday, telling Fort Smith officials the level could reach 41.9 feet.

Geffken said he's prepared to close streets as the river rises. The city and the Sebastian County Emergency Management Department have plenty of sand, bags and shovels, he said. So far, there's no need for any volunteers to help, but that could change, Geffken said.

"The main thing we're recommending citizens not do is try to go into the river or drive through areas that become flooded," he said.

The Army Corps of Engineers updated its flow forecast for the Arkansas River as rain continued to fall in the river's drainage basin in Oklahoma and Kansas. On Thursday, the Corps said flows are expected to exceed those experienced during May of 1990.

Flows at Trimble Lock and Dam near Fort Smith were about 270,000 cubic feet per second Thursday and are expected to peak Monday at about 560,000 cubic feet per second, according to the Corps.

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission warned people to stay off the Arkansas River this Memorial Day weekend.

Keith Stephens, a spokesman for the commission, tried to put the flows in perspective.

"Small craft advisories are issued when the flow gets to 70,000 cubic feet per second," he said. "They expect flows on most pools of the river to peak at or near 500,000 cubic feet per second in the next week."

The Arkansas River was at 25.5 feet at Dardanelle on Thursday and expected to reach 44 feet by Tuesday. That would tie the record, which was set in 1943. Minor flood stage is 32 feet at Dardanelle. Major flood stage is 40 feet.

Ben D. Cross, the Pope County judge, encouraged residents to remove property from areas that could flood in the coming days.

The primary areas affected will be along the river south of Atkins and Pottsville, he said.

Conway District Judge Chris Carnahan sent out a news release saying anyone under misdemeanor probation or who owes community work service to the court can receive double credit for helping fill sandbags in anticipation of the flooding. They would need to contact their probation office or the court.

Farther downstream, the river is expected to reach 25.2 feet in Little Rock on Tuesday. That's in moderate flood stage. Major flood stage in Little Rock is 27 feet, according to the National Weather Service. On Thursday, the Arkansas River was at 13.32 feet at Little Rock.

Seventy miles west of Fort Smith, at Muskogee, Okla., the river level jumped from 27 feet Monday to 42.5 feet on Thursday. The water level is expected to begin going down on Saturday. Major flood stage is 34 feet at Muskogee.

Two barges broke loose from the Port of Muskogee on Wednesday night, and by Thursday morning they had traveled 20 miles down the Arkansas River before slamming into a dam at Webbers Falls and sinking.

Lt. Col. Adam Weece, a spokesman for the Corps, said the dam received "minimal" structural damage.

"There are no integrity issues that would keep the dam from doing its job," he said.

The barges, which were loaded with 1,500 tons of nontoxic phosphate fertilizer, are blocking three of the dam's 18 gates, Weece said.

"There's no threat posed by the barge debris," he said. "That does not affect our ability to regulate the water."

The flow of water can be adjusted to send more water through the other 15 gates, said Weece.

Sarah Stewart, director of media operations for the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, said Interstate 40 and U.S. 64 were closed in Oklahoma on Thursday because of the volume of water in the Arkansas River, but both reopened late Thursday afternoon.

Photo by AP/KFOR
Two unmanned barges that broke loose from the port of Muskogee on the swollen Arkansas River in Oklahoma crash Thursday into the Webbers Falls lock and dam in Oklahoma. The barges sank after hitting the dam. Officials say the dam was damaged but didn’t fail. The barges were carrying about 3,800 pounds of phosphate fertilizer between them.

State Desk on 05/24/2019

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