Tuesday, December 29, 2009

TOP STORY >> Rescue teams answer calls in worst flooding

Leader staff writer

The flooding that resulted from heavy rain the evening of Dec. 23 and all day Christmas Eve will go on record as the worst in recent history.

“I’ve been here since I was six years old, and this is the worst flood I’ve seen in Lonoke County,” said 45-year-old Bobby Graham, assistant chief for the Mountain Springs Volunteer Fire Department.

Jacksonville Fire Capt. Joe Bratton said it was the busiest Christmas he had ever worked. His crew got the first call about 7 a.m. and didn’t stop responding to flooding calls until after 8 p.m., a span of more than 13 hours.

Mountain Springs rescued five residents and four dogs from Grayhawk Circle, where floodwater was about five feet deep early in the morning on Christmas Eve. The South Bend Fire and Rescue Department and the Cabot Fire Department, which brought boats, assisted Mountain Springs.

Lt. Hubert Chapman of the South Bend Fire Department said he has lived in the area since 1955 and has never seen such flooding.

The worst area was on West Hwy. 236, where water was four-to five-feet deep in the roadway and even deeper in the houses, Chapman said. His department responded to 38 calls for rescue from vehicles trapped in high water and assisted six families with safely leaving their homes.

One rescue occurred Sunday evening after water pushed one van off West Hwy. 236.

Other problem areas included Graham Road, Kerr Station Road, South Kerr Road and the area around Gentry, Rifle and Shotgun lanes.

“We are grateful that the waters in our area are finally receding and we plan to be available if any of the departments south of us need any help as the waters travel downstream,” Chapman said.

South Bend had 23 of its 36 firefighters involved in rescues over a 96-hour period.

Capt. Tim Kuykendall spoke about one rescue, a handicapped man who was trapped in his vehicle. At 12:53 p.m. Saturday the department was paged by the Lonoke County Sheriff’s Office.

Kuykendall and Assistant Chief Dwayne James responded to a call at Kerr Station Road on the Hwy. 294 side. They rescued a 17-year-old who was on the roof of his flooded car. While they were standing there, Kuykendall said it appeared that someone was walking in the water.

“James and I conferred with each other. We went in the boat down Kerr Station to Billy Lane. We found a bucket floating in the water.”

Then firefighters spotted a Kia minivan on the roadway in three-and-half-feet of water.

“We pulled up to the vehicle. We found a disabled gentleman, approximately 55 years old. The gentleman was slumped over the steering wheel barely conscious. He had a Zippo lighter that he was pecking at the window, trying to get someone’s attention. He never saw us there,” Kuykendall said.

He said the man had been in the water for at least 45 minutes. He had no cell phone or any other way to contact emergency personnel. According to Kuykendall, the handicapped man was trying to leave the rising water at his home off Kerr Station Road.

“We knew we couldn’t get the patient out of the vehicle because he was handicapped. Hypothermia had already set in,” Kuykendall said.

The firefighters decided to get the department’s six-by-six vehicle, a two-and-a-half ton cargo transporter, to the scene. It was at another call involving a submerged vehicle. The 6x6 resembles a large forestry truck. It stands five-feet tall with six wheels and has six-wheel drive.

Kuykendall continued, “We hooked the six-by-six with a winch to the front of the vehicle and pulled the vehicle 300 yards to dry land. We put him in our rescue vehicle (an ambulance-style vehicle with a covered payload area and heat) until MEMS arrived on scene.

“Something pointed us to that vehicle, it was something out of the blue,” Kuykendall said.

Kuykendall said there were so many vehicles on Kerr Station that emergency crews had to maneuver their boat to get past them.

Most of the rescues were from drivers who drove around barricades.

The district also helped the Mountain Springs and Cabot Fire Departments rescue several families from their homes in the Greyhawk Circle area of Cabot.

Sgt. Branden Hampton of the Lonoke County Sheriff’s Office said when a driver goes around a barricade they would be cited, but since there was a state of emergency, drivers were taken to jail.

The beanfield stretch on Hwy. 67/167 between Redmond Road and the entrance to I-440 in Jacksonville was completely submerged both north and southbound until Saturday, when it was re-opened by the state Highway Department.

Residents in Jacksonville’s Taramount neighborhood were unable to reach their homes, although a few made it to the cut-off in boats.

The entrance to Northlake from Main Street was blocked by floodwater, and about a dozen residents from Taramount parked along Jacksonville Cut-off and hiked through a resident’s yard who had left the gate open for them.

The Jacksonville Fire Department responded to three separate calls of people trapped in floating cars on West Main Street.

Bratton said the biggest problem the department had was getting around because traffic was so backed up everywhere after Hwy. 67/167 was closed down.

A home across from Reed’s Bridge and trailers were flooded on South Hwy. 161.

The stretch of Hwy. 31 from Beebe to Lonoke was flooded and about 30 homes were affected there. Floodwater also closed Hwy. 31 from Hwy. 305 at Floyd to Hwy. 5.

Sylvia Smith, one of the owners of Smith Wrecker in Cabot, said Monday that she had seen ice storms that caused as many motorists to go off the roadways, but in 20 years, she had never seen water cause this much trouble.

“I had three drivers working nonstop,” she said. “I had some boys who went swimming several times (connecting the wench to stalled vehicles), and they said it was cold.”

Smith said her drivers had towed about 30 vehicles.

“We had some that were actually swept off the road and some that died in the road,” she said. “We had some where people drove around the barriers.”

After spending three days moving livestock and pets from his 70-acre hobby farm to higher ground, Dean White, chief deputy at the Lonoke County Sheriff’s Office, said he hopes 2009 was a freak year and 2010 will be more like those he is accustomed to.

Bayou Meto is usually at five feet, he said. On Monday, it was at 26.33 feet and rising.

He said the water completely surrounded his house, and if it rose 13 more inches, then it would be inside.

“I moved here in 1995, and it had never flooded like that before. But water has been up to my house three times this year,” he said. “It wasn’t too bad in May because it was warm and the water was so clear you could see fish in it. Now it’s cold and muddy and you have to break ice when you walk through it.”

So far, his only real losses have been the cattle feeders that have floated off, he said. But his neighbors who raise winter wheat and minnows have fared far worse.

The second time White’s home was surrounded by water was from the rain that fell Oct. 30.

Some residents of Beebe’s Windwood subdivision have not recovered from that flood that filled half a dozen homes. Those same homes and half a dozen more were flooded Christmas Eve after the swamp behind them backed up again.

Mayor Mike Robertson was among the rescuers who took residents out of the flooded area by boat.

The floodwater also washed out a railroad trestle and stopped the trains from running through Beebe for two days.

Milton McCullar, head of Beebe’s street department and the city’s floodplain administrator, said several of the houses weren’t covered by flood insurance, so how the owners will pay for the damage is unclear.

To aid in cleanup, the city has brought in large dumpsters for the furniture that was ruined.

White County Judge Michael Lincoln said flooding around Georgetown near the Little Red River was not as bad as anticipated, but Lake Barnett flooded, which is unusual. The lake came out of its boundaries and washed over Hwy. 31 and over the bridge at Gravel Hill, he said.

The county also lost two 80-year-old one-lane bridges near McRae in the Vinity community, he said.

Mayor Eddie Joe Williams reported “minimal damage” in Cabot. Williams said recent drainage projects kept water out of houses.

Lt. Jim Kulesa, spokesman for the Lonoke County Sheriff’s Office, said Monday that the volunteer fire departments that helped with the evacuations and rescues are heroes who don’t get the recognition they deserve.

“These guys are volunteers. They don’t get paid,” Kulesa said.

Leader staff writers Eileen Feldman and Jeffrey Smith contributed to this report.