January 18, 2006 – Posted at 5:49 p.m. CST
WEST MEMPHIS, AR -- One of the most memorable images from Hurricane Katrina was the levees that broke in New Orleans, causing water to pour into the heart of the city. Northeast Arkansas, like New Orleans, is highly dependent on a series of levees to protect the area from flooding.
Johnny Cash sang about the flood of 1937 in his song “Five Feet High and Risin’” about floodwaters that devastated Northeast Arkansas but what kind of damage would a disaster like that cause in 2006.
“That water would be five feet above the doors at Wal-Mart,” said chief engineer Rob Rash, “That's the type of devastation we are talking about if there is not proper maintenance on our levees.”
Everyone saw the damage caused when the levees in New Orleans gave way. That's why the St. Francis Levee District of Arkansas is in place to protect the area from dangerous floods.
“The systems are in place for the protection and we are protected in case there is another 1937 flood,” said Rash, “You fight a flood before the flood waters get here.”
The district is in charge of preventive upkeep of levees on the Mississippi and St. Francis Rivers. A number of people in Northeastern Arkansas pay a levee tax every year but few actually know where their money is going.
“That money goes for our operating expenses. That is how we maintain the levee that protects everyone's home in Northeast Arkansas,” said Rash.
The St. Francis Levee District was created in 1893 and maintains 235 miles of levee. If it weren't for the series of levees that protect the area from floodwaters much of Northeast Arkansas would be uninhabitable.
“Economic development in Northeast Arkansas would be impossible prior to the construction of the levee system. The Mississippi River, when it got out of its banks, would go all the way to Crowley 's Ridge,” said Rash.
The district protects seven counties in Region 8 including Mississippi, Crittenden, Craighead, Cross, Poinsett, St. Francis, and Lee. With water over 40% of the rivers and streams flowing into the area having another flood to the proportions of 1937 is always a possibility.
“It's not if we get it, but when, we will see another flood to that type of devastation, and our levee system is built to withstand that kind of a flood,” said Rash.