- Associated Press - Sunday, June 14, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - The director of the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management says the condition of many the state’s levees that protect residents from floodwaters is unknown.

Recent flooding on the Arkansas River tore away about 450 feet of a levee and flooded part of Perry County. Fears of a breach on a levee along the Red River in Miller County led to the evacuation of Garland City. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has declared emergencies in 37 counties because of the flooding.

Emergency management director David Maxwell told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (https://bit.ly/1QXJGHN ) that decades of law changes, court orders and poor record-keeping makes it impossible to know how many levees are on the verge of giving way, or even exactly how many levees there are in the state and who is responsible for them.

“I would say that it’s generally unknown, which, for a person in my position, is kind of spooky,” Maxwell said.

After a 1927 flood that killed as many as 1,000 and left thousands more homeless, the state began establishing a system of levees to prevent flooding. Supervision was turned over to local levee districts, which were autonomous and not subject to oversight or regulation by state or local government officials.

“In many cases, these levee boards have been dissolved because of attrition, deaths of committee members, and no one stepped in to fill their place,” said Chris Villines, the head of the Association of Arkansas Counties.

“To properly maintain levees, it takes a lot of money. Those districts, when faced with getting funds … they can’t raise the money, so they dissolve.”

To improve the levees, Villines and Maxwell said the first step is to figure out how many levees there are and who is responsible for them.

A legislative hearing on the conditions of the levees has been set for June 24.

Officials in the Little Rock Corps of Engineers district, which oversees levees along the Arkansas River and parts of the White, Little and Red rivers, said there are 68 levee districts registered with that office, but in only about half of them are levees up to code.

“There are a few of those inactive (districts) where we know who the sponsor is,” according to levee safety program manager Mark Fredricks. “But there are some of the roughly half where you almost don’t know who is in charge anymore. (The levee district) is basically defunct.”

One such levee was the one that failed in Perry County. It was built in 1910.

Tony Batey, a chief engineer with the Corps of Engineers, said that levee has been “inactive” since the late 1980s and has had no work done to it since.

And even if all of the state’s flood-protection structures are accounted for, another question arises.

“How are you going to fund them?” Maxwell asked. “There’s not going to be an easy fix.”

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Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, https://www.arkansasonline.com

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