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Fort Smith flood: A look back three years later

A sunny Memorial Day weekend in 2019 quickly turned into a nightmare as the Arkansas River rose to historic levels impacting the lives of hundreds.

FORT SMITH, Ark. — The unofficial kickoff to summer is Memorial Day weekend. In 2019, sunny skies and warm weather had folks in the Fort Smith area preparing for a long weekend of fun.

But Mother Nature had other plans.

“Mother Nature bats last, and nothing could be more true,” said John Teagle, a resident of Fort Smith.

Days of heavy rainfall in southern Kansas and northern Oklahoma filled lakes, rivers, and streams to the brim.

“The amount of rain that fell in those areas for the month of May was about 200 to 400 percent of what we would normally see in a typical May in that part of the country,” says Nicole McGavock, a Service Hydrologist and Meteorologist with the Tulsa National Weather Service.

Preparations were made by the Army Corps of Engineers to let out the water to prevent widespread flooding throughout the greater Tulsa area, but the water only had one way to go: the Arkansas River as it converged on the city of Fort Smith and surrounding towns.

“There’s nothing you can do,” says Eileen Teagle, a resident of Fort Smith. “We had 36 hours to take our things out.”

The National Weather Service, Sebastian County Emergency Management, and the City of Fort Smith had time to let residents know when and where the water was expected to impact homes and businesses, but the crest was still in doubt.

At the Van Buren gauge, the Arkansas River typically sits between 17 and 22 feet. By 22 feet, the river is considered to be in a minor flood stage. Once it reaches 26 feet, the river is at a moderate flood stage. At 32 feet and above, major flooding is expected.

“We were able to see the crest was almost 41, it was about 40.9 feet that we actually experienced,” said Travis Cooper, Deputy Director of Sebastian County Emergency Management. “If it would have got to 42 feet, we would’ve had almost double the homes that were damaged.”

The 2019 flood was record-breaking. In fact, it broke the record twice. In 1945, the Arkansas River was recorded at 38.1 feet. That record stood until May 28 when a river crest of 40.26 feet was recorded, but by June 1, that record was once again broken with a final crest of 40.79 feet.

Residents were at the mercy of the slow and steady rising water.

“It’s just the situation where there’s nothing you can do,” said Fort Smith resident Chuck Fawcett. “I mean, you’re just sitting there, thinking about you know, how soon is it going to get you? You know, did we get everything out?”

In some areas, people had water reach the second level of their homes. Fawcett was no different.

“We had to gut the house. Upstairs and downstairs, we had to take it all the way to the studs,” said Fawcett. “All of our heating-air units are gone. You know, all the plumbing, cabinets, everything else. We had to take everything, first floor, second floor back to the studs and rebuild it.”

Just down the road, John and Eileen Teagle were also impacted by floodwater damaging their home. Inside their garage, water reached close to a foot and a half, leaving a visible scar three years later.

“We kept that waterline, we never touched our garage door on the inside and we preserved it so that we will always remember. You can see, in our garage, it’s probably about 15 inches tall,” said Eileen Teagle.

Three years later, homes, businesses, and the city are still recovering from physical and financial damages. Despite that, the flood brought people together in a spirit of resilience.

“The flood of 2019 did show Fort Smith at its best, of people caring, coming together, wanting to help,” said Fort Smith City Administrator, Carl E. Geffken.

With an outpouring of support at their own home, the Teagles echoed Geffken by saying, “it is a city that cares. It truly is a very helpful and concerned city for the needs of its community. We saw it, we felt it, we were recipients of it and we’re grateful to be in this community.”

May – especially towards the end of May – still makes people anxious about the possibility of another historic flood. However, the city is working on further measures to mitigate the risks. With levees lining Riverfront Drive and updates to pump stations, the city is doing everything it can to prevent another widespread flood in Fort Smith.

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