May 19-20, 1990


Is it just me, or does anyone else start to get a little nervous when it rains cats and dogs in early May?

The last couple of days were a real gut check in the memory department, after a half-foot of rain in some areas of the county forced water rescues, flooded roads, and infiltrated homes and businesses. We were fortunate the damage was not greater, or that there were no reported loss of life or injuries.

That wasn't the case in May 1990, when Dana and I were living in a home off Adcock Road as our new house was being built. Beginning the night of Saturday, May 19, and continuing early into the morning of Sunday, May 20, flood waters heavily damaged Garland County, particularly downtown Hot Springs and along the shores of Lake Catherine. The devastation it wrought, and the memories it left behind, resonate to this day for many.

I did a little digging around after the skies opened up this week to jog my memory a little bit, since the 33rd anniversary of the flood of May 19-20, 1990, is coming up this week.

One of the most authoritative accounts was a 1992 report by the U.S. Geological Survey, prepared in cooperation with Arkansas Power & Light Co. (now Entergy), the Arkansas Soil and Water Conservation Commission, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Looking back after more than 30 years have passed was a sobering experience. I knew the floodwaters had caused a lot of damage, but at the time we were peering at the event through a narrow lens focused on day-to-day newsgathering -- not the bigger picture. Remember, this was in the day before commonplace cellphone use, laptop computers or the internet. You reported from the field -- if you could get to those areas at all. I recall standing on the shores of Lake Catherine looking at slabs where homes had once been, and talking to people who had taken refuge on the roofs of their homes until they were rescued.

According to the report, authored by Rodney E. Southard, rainfall in the spring of 1990 was generally above normal in western Arkansas, and on May 19 and 20 a series of severe thunderstorms produced heavy rainfall in the vicinity of Hot Springs.

The Hot Springs National Park Service rainfall station recorded 12.97 inches of rain within a 24-hour period. Maximum rainfall totals for the six-, 12-, and 24-hour periods at Remmel Dam and Carpenter Dam had "recurrence intervals" that exceeded 100 years.

The flooding was so severe it damaged numerous bridges and homes and resulted in the loss of one life. Floodwaters 2 to 4 feet deep "rushed through the historic downtown area of Hot Springs, causing extensive damage to private and public property."

The most extensive damage occurred in the city of Hot Springs and along the Ouachita River from Blakely Mountain Dam to the state Highway 84 crossing near Malvern.

Southard cites articles from The Sentinel-Record for part of the information. In terms of today's dollars, these damage estimates would be staggering:

Hot Springs city officials estimated damage at $5.3 million, of which $2.9 million was to private property and $2.4 million was to public property.

AP&L personnel estimated damage to the Lake Catherine steam electric station, Remmel Dam hydroelectric plant, and a switching yard along the main stem of the Ouachita River at $2 million.

The one-lane Carpenter Dam Road bridge, and a bridge on state Highway 84 near Malvern, were destroyed.

The American Red Cross estimated 335 homes in Garland County were flooded; 160 of these homes were destroyed.

There's not a lot you can do to mitigate flooding from a foot of rainfall in a short period of time; a lot of methods were studied in the years after the flood, and most carried a prohibitive price tag. Our warning systems have certainly improved over the years, and some measures have been taken to better manage high-water events both on the lakes and downtown.

Listening to the thunder rumble outside as I write this, I still wonder if we've done enough.

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