- Associated Press - Sunday, May 7, 2017

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue promised Sunday to expedite requests for federal assistance after touring flooded northeast Arkansas with the state’s governor and three members of its congressional delegation.

Storms that brought flooding and tornadoes to the state are now blamed for nine deaths, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Sunday, following Saturday’s discovery of the bodies of an 18-month-old girl in Madison County and the body of a canoeist from Missouri in the Buffalo River in Newton County.

Arkansas Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman Melody Daniel said earlier that the canoeist had been counted among the dead, but later said she had mistaken the man for another canoeist who died in a separate flood-related accident in Saline County.

At a news conference following a helicopter tour that included Hutchinson, Sen. John Boozman and Reps French Hill and Rick Crawford, Perdue said state officials are assessing the damage.

“They will convey to your governor their estimates of that, both from a FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) disaster situation as well as an agricultural … disaster claim,” Perdue said.

Hutchinson said a preliminary assessment places damages at $21 million, not including damage to agricultural land.

“FEMA will be coming in Wednesday, starting the damage assessments, and this is good news that they will start early,” Hutchinson said.

Crawford called the situation terrible.

“Right now, what we need to do is just get to work and figure out a way to get farmers back in the field and try to make something out of this year. It’s going to be tough.”

The state on Sunday raised the death toll by two, to nine, following Saturday’s discovery of the bodies of 18-month-old Krystal Wiggins and 65-year-old Rick Norber.

Wiggins’ body was found about 10 miles from where the vehicle in which she was riding was swept off a bridge near Hindsville, about 130 miles northwest of Little Rock, the Madison County sheriff’s Office said in a news release.

The body of the girl’s 4-year-old brother, Damien Wiggins, was found earlier this week more than three miles from the bridge.

Authorities have said the children were with their mother on April 29 when the vehicle was swept off the bridge during heavy rain and flooding. The sheriff’s office says the mother, who survived, tried to carry the children to safety but they were pulled into a swift current.

The body of Norber, of St. Louis, was found in the Buffalo River after he disappeared while canoeing on the river April 26 when the storms began.

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