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The floods of downtown

May 29, 2019 at 4:00 a.m.

Unfortunately, much of downtown Hot Springs is located in a flood plain. This is a history of the eight major floods that have occurred since 1920 in our downtown.

The most devastating downtown flood in the history of the city took place on May 14, 1923. Heavy rains started the night before and when the ground was already saturated another 5 inches of rain fell within just a few hours. In less than 24 hours, a total of more than 10 inches of rain had fallen on the mountains and valleys along Whittington and Park Avenues. The flood swept at least 100 cars down Central Avenue. These cars became destructive battering rams crashing through plate glass windows and knocking over fire hydrants. Dozens of downtown storefronts windows were shattered and mud and debris destroyed the interiors of many businesses. Large sheets of asphalt were torn from Central Avenue and caught up in the torrent of water. One life was lost.

During May 19-20, 1990, a similar flood devastated downtown after 13 inches of rain in a 24-hour period. Millions of dollars in property damage occurred both downtown and also around Garland County. One life was lost. Water depths in downtown reached an average depth of 4 feet. Raging water moving at 20 mph swept cars and debris down Central to Bridge Street where the flood veered over to Broadway and then down Hot Springs Creek. Many downtown basements were flooded with 8 feet or more of water. Even the lower level of the Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa was flooded.

The depth and destructiveness of the downtown floods worsen as the floodwaters flow from the 100 block to the 800 block of Central Avenue at Bridge Street. This topography causes the raging floodwaters on Central Avenue to veer to the east across Bridge Street and onto Broadway as the flood makes its way to Hot Springs Creek past Transportation Plaza.

The May 1990 flood broke records to the south of the city where parts of Lake Hamilton suffered a 100-year record rainfall, and Lake Catherine recorded a catastrophic 150-year record rainfall. Parts of Lake Hamilton rose 3 feet over its normal elevation and Lake Catherine rose 5 feet or more over its normal level. Remmel Dam that forms Lake Catherine had almost 3 feet of water overtopping it! Hundreds of homes on Lake Catherine sustained major damage.

How does the 1990 flood compare with the 1923 flood? The maximum depth of the 1923 flood was estimated to be 9 feet at Bridge Street. The maximum depth of the 1990 flood was estimated to be 7 feet at that same location.

Somewhat forgotten are a number of smaller floods that have also occurred on Central Avenue in the last 100 years. Six floods of at least 3 feet in depth include those that occurred in May 1920, April 21, 1927, Feb. 15, 1956, July 19, 1963, Oct. 18, 1984, and most recently on April 4, 2008. This means that there is a major downtown flood occurring on average every 12 years.

How much protection does the Hot Springs Creek tunnel that runs from Whittington Avenue to lower Broadway Street provide? Unfortunately, its relatively small size can only accommodate a maximum of a small 10-year annual flood.

What can be done to decrease downtown flooding? In the 1990s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers studied this problem and reported that the only comprehensive solution would be to drill a long tunnel from Whittington Avenue through West Mountain to divert the floodwaters. But the cost of this proposal was in the hundreds of millions of dollars and would require the unlikely approval of the National Park Service due to concerns that the construction of such a diversion tunnel might disrupt the flow of the thermal springs.

The good news is that the city is now experimenting with the idea of building retention ponds to be located up both Park Avenue and Whittington Avenue. These type of ponds would slow the flow of the downtown floods. While not a perfect solution, the retention ponds would reduce the severity of the floods. Also, downtown property owners have been adapting their building to better withstand floodwaters by raising the height of shop windows and installing more substantial flood-proof doors.

Retired local attorney Clay Farrar writes a monthly column about Hot Springs history. Email [email protected] with questions or comments.

Editorial on 05/29/2019

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