A convergence of factors causes flooding in the streets of Fort Smith when it rains.
Over 3 inches of rain fell on Fort Smith from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday, causing floods that at times submerged entire intersections. Such flooding, officials say, is a result of drains that have not been cleaned in years and old drainage plans.
The waters that submerged the roads on Wednesday prompted the National Weather Service to issue a flood warning for Sebastian County until 1 p.m. Thursday and officials with the Fort Smith street and police departments to close several roads in the morning. It also drew all Street Department teams into the city for mitigation work, streets and traffic control director George Allen said.
Allen said his teams were experiencing difficulty in mitigating the floods on Wednesday morning.
"The ground is saturated, and the catch basins and the pipes can only handle so much water over a short period of time," he said.
Though the saturation from previous days may have caused difficulty, Allen said Fort Smith's drain pipes also present a problem. To his knowledge, the city has never had a drainage system cleaning program, which he said is "common practice around the country."
Allen said he would like to start such a program in Fort Smith. Though he said purchasing the equipment would be expensive, he said such a program could potentially solve some of the flooding problems.
"If you have a 30-inch pipe that hasn’t been cleaned in 30 years, if it’s 30 inches now, maybe it’s functioning at half of its capacity, or maybe 20 or 30 percent of its capacity. So I think just going out and physically cleaning some of our drainage pipes will help with our flooding problem," Allen said, noting that some pipes will have to be re-engineered to effectively mitigate floods.
But some streets in Fort Smith are out of Allen's control. Towson Avenue, portions of which on Wednesday morning held about a foot of water, is under the jurisdiction and maintenance of Arkansas Department of Transportation, as it is part of U.S. 71. Rogers Avenue, which on Wednesday morning was flooded near its intersection with North 16th Street, is technically part of Arkansas 22 and is also under the Department of Transportation.
Because Towson Avenue is out of his jurisdiction, Allen said he has reached out to the Department of Transportation in reference to the roadway. He also said others in the Street Department have also reached out to them before he became a city director in Fort Smith three months ago.
Department of Transportation officials do not currently have any plans to address the floods on Towson, said Chad Adams, Department District 4 engineer.
"There’s that understanding that, if it rains heavily and quickly during downpours, there’s going to be some slight flooding," Adams said.
The flooding on Towson is due to what Department of Transportation District 4 engineer Chad Adams called an "old system." He said Towson has gone from having permeable ground to paved roads, which come with development.
"Instead of some of the rain being absorbed by the ground, everything is trying to get into the system now. It wasn’t designed for that when it was built probably 75 years ago," Adams said. "The issue is that it wasn't designed for that kind of development, so that's what's causing most of the flooding during these rain events."
Kaity Gould, co-owner of Fort Smith Coffee Co., which is located at the intersection of Towson and Rogers avenues, said floodwaters on June 8 came through the parking lot and under the front doors of her business when vehicles drove by. A video taken by store employees that day shows the parking lot of Coffee Co. and the section of Towson Avenue between Rogers and Garrison avenues entirely submerged.
"We started getting nervous (on Wednesday morning) and kind of watching just to make sure it wasn’t going to happen again," she said.
Though Gould said this kind of flooding doesn't happen at Coffee Co. every time it rains, she said she is on alert through the end of this week. The National Weather Service predicts a chance of thunderstorms every day through Sunday in Fort Smith.
"We’re just holding our breath and accepting the fact that we can’t do anything about it," Gould said.
According to the National Weather Service, there is a 40 percent chance of thunderstorms Thursday after 1 p.m.