Flood of 1978
On September 13, 1978, a large rainstorm subjected much of central Arkansas to record-setting amounts of rainfall. Due to the resulting flash floods, ten people drowned in Little Rock (Pulaski County) and three more died in Benton (Saline County). In addition to local authorities, Governor David Pryor activated the Benton and Little Rock National Guard units to assist in search and rescue efforts. The flood affected Arkansans in at least fifty-seven counties and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage.
The storm began moving from west to east beginning on September 13. The National Weather Service reported that 8.10 inches of rain fell on September 13 alone, a record second only to the 8.81 inches that fell on April 9, 1913. (The year 1978 is the ninth wettest year on record in Arkansas, with 64.86 inches of rainfall; typical rainfall is about 50 inches.) The evening edition of the September 13 Benton Courier reported that one death, that of a small child, had already been confirmed in Benton; the Saline County Sheriff’s Department had received other reports of drownings from Benton and Shannon Hills (Saline County). Gray Street in Benton was said to be under eight feet of water at one point. The Hidden Valley subdivision in Benton was under more than three feet, as creeks had risen to block the covered bridge there.
All roads into Little Rock, where flooding had been reported, were closed at noon on September 13. The campus of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock on University Avenue was damaged after Coleman Creek flooded, stranding students in the Student Union building until the water subsided.
A school bus in Garland County was swept 300 feet down a creek and came to a stop after hitting a tree. The driver, Robert Hartman, rescued the twenty-one children by pulling them through a window onto the vehicle’s roof. Two older children made it to dry ground and notified the Garland County Sheriff’s Department. Benton’s schools were locked down. In Haskell (Saline County), students were taken home escorted by military and fire vehicles. Boats from Congo Marine were utilized during the flooding to evacuate residents of a mobile home park on Highway 5.
After Rock Creek in Little Rock flooded, a car floated into an Arkansas-Louisiana gas line, causing a sixty-foot geyser to erupt from the surface. Waters from Rock Creek caused major damage to the John Barrow addition of the Boyle Park area, where chunks of the street were ripped up and homes were knocked from their foundations. Sewers all over western Little Rock backed up, boats were used on city streets, an estimated 8,000 people were without power, and ten utility poles were downed. The Arkansas State Police closed sections of Interstate 30 and Interstate 430 due to flooding. The city’s tornado sirens shorted out.
The U.S. Weather Service reported that the Saline River would crest at twenty-eight feet, well above flood levels, by midnight on September 13. Even twenty-four hours after it had started, the rain had not subsided. The National Weather Service reported that 6.25 inches of rain fell in just five hours on September 13. Both Shannon Hills and the Ranchette subdivision were completely inaccessible by road. Their fire departments were evacuating homes there before the National Guard was dispatched by Governor Pryor.
On September 14, the Arkansas Gazette reported that ten people were dead, several people were missing, and that damages were in the millions of dollars. Max Brantley reported that hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed, leaving people homeless. That night, police were securing a “large area in western Little Rock.” Photographs published on the Gazette’s front page on September 14 showed police rescuing residents trapped in flood waters on Asher Avenue after Rock Creek had risen to dangerous levels. Fourche Creek on University Avenue flooded as well.
John Brummet and Steele Hays of the Gazette reported that 200 residents were displaced in Shannon Hills. The dam at Lake Pauline in Benton collapsed, covering the Lakeview subdivision and leading to the evacuation of 300 residents. Governor Pryor sought help from President Jimmy Carter and from the Disaster Assistance Administration, the Small Business Administration, and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Bob S. Bergland.
Three deaths were confirmed by Saline County Sheriff Joe Lee Richards; in addition to the death reported the previous day, two boys—Darren and Paul McCutcheon, ages seven and four, respectively—had been swept away by a flooded creek and later found dead; their mother and sister were saved by police. By September 14, the Gazette was reporting that deaths in Little Rock included a three-year-old child, a four-year old child, an eight-year-old child, a ten-year-old child, an eighteen-year-old woman, an adult woman, and a woman in her mid-twenties. On September 14, the body of a five-year-old boy, Carlo Robinson, was found near Rock Creek, raising the death toll in Pulaski County to eight (his brother, Gwen, had been found dead the previous day). The Gazette reported that all the dead had been found within two miles of the flooded Rock Creek.
On September 16, the Gazette reported that more than fifteen inches of rainfall was recorded at the Alcoa plant in Bauxite (Saline County). Thirteen and fourteen inches of rainfall were reported at Crystal Valley and Benton, respectively. Benton’s water and sewage department facilities were heavily damaged, and millions of gallons of sewage flowed into the Saline River. Benton City Manager Charles Nickerson reported the plant suffered $800,000 to $900,000 in damages. Ten to fifteen sewage lines were washed out or broken, and three pump stations were knocked out by the flooding. A water line serving the Salem (Saline County) area northeast of Benton was damaged, and others developed leaks, causing dirt to get into the water. Damaged lines were shut off by the Water Department to avoid the risk of contamination. The Red Cross provided disaster relief to more than 5,000 people in three days, mostly in Little Rock, Benton, and Wynne in Cross County.
The Red Cross reported that, by September 16, 500 homes in Pulaski, Saline, and Cross counties had been destroyed, fourteen homes and thirty-five mobile homes had been heavily damaged, and ninety-six apartments had received minor damages. The Red Cross opened two disaster relief centers in Pulaski County, one at St. Luke Methodist Church at 6401 West 32nd Street and another at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church at 211 West 19th Street in North Little Rock (Pulaski County). Some 518 flood victims had applied for relief at three federal disaster centers in Pulaski and Saline counties. More than 100 people applied for temporary housing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture designated six counties as disaster areas, which made loans available to local farmers in Pulaski, Saline, Cross, Grant, Jackson, and Prairie counties.
Cross County was declared a disaster area on September 19; eight county roads and between 25,000 and 30,000 acres of farmland were still under water at that time. Ten inches of rain had fallen on areas of northern Cross County. Ten bridges were damaged or destroyed at a cost of $200,000. Cross County Judge William J. Wood reported that 50,000 to 60,000 acres of rice and soybeans were flooded and almost completely ruined. Relief centers in Cross County were established at Hickory Ridge and Cherry Valley, the two towns hardest hit by the flood. On the same day, water services had almost completely been restored in Benton despite a sixteen-inch intake line at the Saline River having been washed out. The City of Benton had adequate water supply from reserve ponds and two other lines. It was estimated that it would take another sixty days to repair the city’s sewage system.
On September 19, federal officials announced that disaster relief centers set up at the East Little Rock Community Center and the Saline County Fairgrounds at Benton, with a third opened at Western Hills United Methodist Church in Little Rock, would be closing, “having served their purpose.”
Thousands of Arkansans were displaced by the Flood of 1978. An estimated $12 million of damages had been reported in Cross County with $25 million in Pulaski and Saline counties. The Red Cross received 1,325 applications for relief in Little Rock and Benton combined. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s vice-chancellor for finance, Francis Robinson, reported that five vehicles on the campus were ruined and that half the buildings were damaged. On September 20, a column in the Arkansas Gazette blamed much of the damages on poor and outdated drainage systems in Arkansas cities like Little Rock. The column pushed hard for “a countywide or metropolitan storm drainage project” that would address the problems “that descended so savagely upon us last week.”
During the flood, Little Rock resident Sharon Priest suffered damage to her home and also gave birth her son. In the aftermath of the flood, she directed an effort to bring flood relief, called the Fourche Creek Flood Reduction Project, and joined the Little Rock City Beautiful Commission, where she advocated for new flood control measures. On April 30, 1984, Governor Frank White signed the commission’s petition for federal funding to control flooding along the Fourche and Rock creeks in Little Rock. In 1986, Priest announced from the Fourche Creek bridge that she was running for city director against incumbent Bob Hess, with improved drainage and flood control being major parts of her platform. She served on the Little Rock Board of Directors from 1986 to 1990 before becoming in 1991 the second woman to serve as the city’s mayor and in 1994 Arkansas’s first female Secretary of State.
For additional information:
“15-inch Rainfall Measured at Bauxite Biggest So Far.” Arkansas Gazette, September 16, 1978, p. 2A.
“At Least One Dead in Flash Flood.” Benton Courier, September 13, 1978, p. 1.
“Benton Flooding Leaves Three Dead, Sheriff Reports.” Arkansas Gazette, September 14, 1978, p. 2A.
Brantley, Max. “10 Die in Central Arkansas Floods.” Arkansas Gazette, September 14, 1978, pp. 1A, 7A.
Brummet, John, and Steele Hays. “Floods Kill 3; Dam Cracks at Benton.” Arkansas Gazette, September 14, 1978, pp. 1A, 2A.
“City Beautiful Chairman to Run for City Director.” Arkansas Gazette, August 31, 1986, p. 3B.
“County Flood Damage Hits $5 Million.” Benton Courier, September 14, 1978, p. 1.
“Disaster Declared for Cross County; U.S. Aid Available.” Arkansas Gazette, September 20, 1978, 4A.
“Drainage and the Flood.” Arkansas Gazette, September 20, 1978, p. 14A.
“Flood Damage to Plant Sends Sewage Flowing into River at Benton.” Benton Courier, September 16, 1978, p. 2A.
Oswald, Mark. “Flood Death Toll Rises to 8 in Pulaski County.” Arkansas Gazette, September 15, 1978, pp. 1A, 8A.
Matlack, Carol. “2 Missing in Flood Sound Safe; 518 Seek Federal Aid.” Arkansas Gazette, September 19, 1978, p. 6A.
“More than 25,000 acres, 8 Roads Still under Water in Cross County.” Arkansas Gazette, September 19, 1978, p. 6A.
“White Signs Petition Backing Drive for Flood Control Funds.” Arkansas Gazette, April 30, 1982, p. 12B.
Cody Lynn Berry
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