FORT SMITH, Ark. (AP) — The Arkansas River neared a historic crest Wednesday in Arkansas' second-largest city, but officials said the levee system was "performing admirably" from the rush of water coming downstream from rain-soaked Oklahoma and Kansas.
Still, the river was nearly twice the level it was 10 days ago, widespread flooding persisted in Fort Smith, and heavy rainfall was expected to make matters worse. Forecasters said flash flooding could be severe because the excess water has nowhere to drain.
"Just because the river has crested doesn't mean we're out of danger," said Col. Bob Dixon of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Dixon said the levee system will be strained as the water moves downstream into Arkansas, and record crests are predicted at several sites along the river. Two levees have already been topped in rural areas of Arkansas.
Dixon said the water in Fort Smith should begin receding, which he said would likely take weeks, not days. The river was at about 40 feet (12 meters) on Wednesday, breaking the previous record crest of 38 feet (11.5 meters) that was set in 1945.
At least one death has been blamed on the flooding. About 45 homes in Sebastian County have been affected by flooding, but that number is expected to rise to "several hundred," according to the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management.
The rush of water is coming as the Army Corps of Engineers releases water from a hydroelectric dam northwest of Tulsa, Oklahoma, to 275,000 cubic feet (7,787 cubic meters) per second to help drain the swollen Keystone Lake reservoir.
The reservoir drains a watershed of more than 22,000 square miles (57,000 square kilometers) in areas of northeastern Oklahoma and southeastern Kansas, where up to 20 inches (51 centimeters) of rain has fallen in the past month. The rainfall is significant: In all of 2018, the same areas recorded between 30 and 45 inches of rain (76 to 114 centimeters).
The release of water from the Keystone Dam is necessary to prevent the reservoir from spilling over the flood-control structure, which would allow floodwaters to flow uncontrolled down the river, according to Preston Chasteen, deputy chief of public affairs for the Corps' Tulsa District.
"The whole purpose of a dam is to capture that flood water and not let it run freely down the river," he said Tuesday. "If these dams weren't in place to control these releases, I think the circumstances would be far worse than they currently are."
Associated Press writer Jill Bleed contributed to this report from Little Rock, Arkansas.