Southeast Arkansas residents still recovering from 2021 flooding

Many didn’t qualify for state financial aid or didn’t know about availability

By: - June 12, 2023 7:00 am

The two-foot water level from the June 2021 flood is still visible in Stanley Weaver’s house in Tillar on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. Weaver received some disaster relief funds from the Arkansas Division of Emergency Management but is still fixing the house two years later. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

Two years later, Brenda Verser of Dumas still has not replaced the carpets in her three-bedroom house.

Stanley Weaver of Tillar is still trying to get his kitchen cabinets replaced.

Felicia Chaney of Winchester has a tarp on the roof and holes in the ceiling of the double-wide trailer she shares with her six children.

They and other Southeast Arkansas residents are still recovering from an unprecedented flood two years ago that resulted in little help from government entities, they said.

Chaney said fixing her roof will cost $7,000 she does not have. The tarp usually keeps rain at bay, but not always.

“I’m doing check-for-check [repairs], here and there,” she said.

A record 20 inches of rain fell on southeastern Arkansas in June 2021; Desha County bore the brunt of the unprecedented flooding and ensuing damage to homes and businesses. Those affected had to replace furniture, tear up ruined flooring, remove the sheetrock in their walls, replace the insulation and apply chemicals to kill mold and mildew, among other things.

Two years later, several residents of Dumas and the surrounding area — including some who received disaster relief funds from the Arkansas Division of Emergency Management — are still living in flood-damaged homes and struggling to get them repaired. Many residents did not have flood insurance two years ago, and some still do not, they said.

With $50 here, $100 there, that’s how I was able to survive.

– Evelyn Murphy, a retired teacher in Dumas whose home was flooded in June 2021

Flora Simon, Dumas’ mayor at the time, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette she wasn’t sure “how substantial” any aid would be apart from charity and volunteer work.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Desha County’s population of more than 10,000 is 48% Black and 48% white. 27.6% of residents were in poverty in 2022, and the median household income between 2017 and 2021 was $33,295.

Then-Gov. Asa Hutchinson declared a state of emergency on June 10, 2021, and promised the affected community $100,000 of relief aid from the Emergency Response Fund of the Governor’s Disaster Fund, which ADEM oversees.

Later that month, ADEM distributed $69,500 from this fund to 25 households in Desha County, according to data the Arkansas Advocate obtained in May via a Freedom of Information Act request. Sixteen households received $2,300 each, seven received $4,600 each and two received $250.

Some recipients said the money helped a great deal, while others said it wasn’t enough, and still others said they were disappointed not to get financial assistance.

Residents of Dumas, Tillar and Watson filled out forms and turned them in at Dumas City Hall, detailing the damage to their homes and what cleanup supplies they needed. The Advocate obtained forms from 47 households via another Freedom of Information Act request.

Several people who submitted forms to the city told the Advocate they were under the impression the forms were applications for financial assistance. In reality, the applications for emergency relief funds from ADEM were a separate form. Not everyone affected by the flood understood this, so they felt ignored by both the city and the state, they said.

“I was in a whole lot of pain and I lost everything,” said Linda Mosby of Dumas. “It was rough on me, and nobody reached out to me… I didn’t even get a dollar.”

Felicia Chaney walks out of her double-wide trailer in Winchester on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. The trailer has had a tarp on the roof since 20 inches of rain in the area led to severe flooding in June 2021. Chaney said water still gets in through the tarp and two holes in the ceiling during heavy rain. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

Improving “very slowly”

One of ADEM’s criteria for distributing disaster aid is if flood waters cover electrical outlets inside residences. Some residents that did not receive financial assistance said they did not have enough water indoors to qualify for this aid.

“We only got 1 ½ to 2 inches in our house, just enough to ruin the floor and sheetrock,” said Bruce Clark, one of Weaver’s neighbors. “Compared to what some people lost, we didn’t have a great loss.”

Clark said he and his wife are “very slowly getting [the house] back to where we were at” before the flood. Weaver said he is doing the same, even after receiving $4,600 from the state, twice as much as some of his neighbors did.

As the floodwaters rose outside Weaver’s house, looking through the patio door was “like looking through a fishbowl,” with the water 24 inches above ground, he said.

The water had moved through the septic system before it made its way inside the house and covered not only electrical outlets but also the floors and furniture, Weaver said.

“All of our furniture, couches, bedding, et cetera — my wife said we can’t attempt to salvage any of it because it’s raw sewage [in the water],” he said.

Members of the Weavers’ family helped them clear out their damaged belongings, he said.

Evelyn Murphy of Dumas had just renovated her home when the flood undid months of work. She received no government assistance, and her “funds were at an all-time low” after the renovations, she said.

However, members of the community she has lived in her entire life came to her aid, making her one of the lucky ones, Murphy said.

“I taught school here until retirement, so I did have some people to come to my rescue,” she said. “With $50 here, $100 there, that’s how I was able to survive.”

I had to get my roof redone, and I’m still paying that off. It’s kind of hard when you’re on a fixed income.

– Dumas resident Marilyn Page, whose home was damaged in the June 2021 flood

Additionally, charitable organizations such as the Red Cross, Samaritan’s Purse, Arkansas Baptist Disaster Relief and the United Methodist Committee on Relief brought material aid to the region, several residents said.

Dumas resident Linda Weatherford helped the local First United Methodist Church distribute buckets of cleaning supplies to those affected by the flood.

She said the governor’s office told her shortly after the flood that the state did not provide any financial assistance to Desha County residents, so she was surprised to learn that ADEM did give money to some residents. As a longtime volunteer in Desha County, Weatherford said it is “frustrating” to see miscommunication and a lack of assistance from government entities when a community needs help.

“They fall through the cracks, but at the same time the state is like ‘well, [we’ll help] only if they get in touch with us,’” said Weatherford, who is now on the Dumas city council. “That’s what happens sometimes with marginalized people. They don’t know [because] they’re in a state of shock.”

Rick Terry, Desha County’s emergency management coordinator, said he expected several residents to qualify for state aid and was disappointed when ADEM denied their applications.

“The vast majority just didn’t qualify, and it’s a bad deal because some of the areas that flood the most in Dumas were some of the poorest areas in that town,” Terry said.

Desha County was one of 13 counties that qualified for federal aid in March after seeing the worst of a four-day winter storm that hit Arkansas in late January and early February. Heavy ice accumulation, up to half an inch, caused trees to fall on buildings and power lines, and thousands of Arkansans experienced power outages.


Drainage in Desha County

Desha County’s canal system is designed to handle 5 inches of rainfall. The region received four times that amount in June 2021.

Water flows into the county on a downhill slope from as far north as Pine Bluff on its way to the Mississippi River, the eastern border of Desha County, said Jason Smith, an inspector with the county’s Cypress Creek Drainage District.

Canal 19 and Canal 43, both east of Dumas, overflowed after three days of rainfall in June 2021, and the excess water flooded fields, streets and homes throughout Desha and Drew counties.

Those canals were widened in the 1980s to twice their previous size, which alleviated the previous flood risk, Smith said.

Gillis Griffin said he has lived in Desha County since 1975 and remembers when the canals were widened.

“From that point forward, we never had any more problems, and a few years later, they took us out of the floodplain. I dropped my flood insurance when they did that, and I wish I hadn’t, but hindsight is 20/20.”

Griffin’s house in Tillar was flooded with a foot of water in 2021. 

We need people to come in and repair. If they don’t want to give us money, send someone here in a task force to work on the houses.

– Dumas resident and business owner Lydia Davis

Smith, the drainage inspector, is a lifelong Desha County resident and said the county gets 5 inches of rain once a year, much more frequently than it used to. He farms rice, soybeans and wheat on 4,000 acres between Dumas and Watson, and he said the losses he and other farmers experienced from the 2021 flood were not enough for them to get financial aid.

“When a hurricane hits or when we have a big river flood, usually [those] will draw money, but that situation that we had, it was just an unfortunate occurrence,” Smith said. “Nothing like that usually happens. In my whole life, seldom do I ever remember it raining over 9 or 10 inches, and all those situations came during hurricanes.”

Terry said he and other county officials gave Simon, the former mayor, the option of adopting the county’s emergency management plan for the city of Dumas when she took office, but Simon declined.

After the flood, Simon expressed interest in adopting the county’s plan in order to try to receive federal disaster relief aid, Terry said.

Simon could not be reached for comment. She was voted out of office in 2022 and replaced by Mayor Price Boney in January.

Boney told the Advocate that the Arkansas Black Mayors Association is working on several drainage projects throughout Arkansas, including in Dumas.

The city has had some minimal flooding in the streets since Boney took office, he said, and cleaning out ditches is “basically all we can do [since] we’re on flat land and we don’t have anywhere to take the water.”

“The stormwater gets into our sewer system and keeps the pumps going all the time,” he said. “It’s just compounding problems.”

Sandbags still rest along the edges of Brenda Verser’s Dumas carport on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. Her home was damaged during severe flooding two years ago. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

Confusion and frustration

Like several other Dumas residents with flood-damaged homes, Cloria Taylor was not sure where relief money was supposed to come from, she said.

Desha County officials directed her to the state, but ADEM told her “they didn’t have any funds” and directed her back to the county, Taylor said.

“I gave up because my nerves had gotten bad,” she said.

Cellestine James and Marilyn Page both received state money, but they said they were not initially certain of where the money came from, and it did not cover most of their flood-related expenses.

“There was a bad leak from all that rain, and I had to get my roof redone, and I’m still paying that off,” Page said. “It’s kind of hard when you’re on a fixed income.”

Meanwhile, Chaney, the mother of six in Winchester, said she did not seek financial assistance because she feared sharing her personal information online.

“Nowadays if you’re filling out stuff online, it could be a base for scams,” Chaney said.

Verser, of Dumas, said ADEM did not tell her what qualified her for the financial aid she received. She also said having to pay someone to clear damaged belongings out of her house “ate up a lot of that money” and she has not received more financial aid since then.

“People won’t help no more, now that we got a handout,” Verser said.

David Sikes said he and his family moved from Desha County to Van Buren County in August 2021, partly to take care of his elderly parents and partly because they could not afford to fix their flood-damaged house in Tillar.

“The Red Cross came out there and looked at us and gave us a $200 check, but that was it,” Sikes said. “There was no help from any government agency whatsoever.”

Lydia Davis sits on a bench in front of a business property she owns along U.S. 65 in Dumas. Davis said the darker areas along the bottom of the building’s outside wall were caused by floodwaters in 2021. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

The Sikes family is an exception; most residents of Desha County have stayed put and plan to keep doing so. What they want most is simply the resources to fix their homes, they said.

In addition to money, people need help with manual labor and with applying for financial aid in disaster situations, Lydia Davis of Dumas said.

“We need carpenters. We need people to come in and repair,” Davis said. “If they don’t want to give us money, send someone here in a task force to work on the houses.”


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Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.