LITTLE ROCK — Seven Arkansas counties were declared disaster areas Thursday, lengthening the list of areas getting help as they recover from severe weather that has plagued the state over the past five weeks.
In a welcome change, the forecast for the coming several days calls for only a slim chance of storms and a clear Memorial Day weekend.
Gov. Mike Beebe on Thursday declared Baxter, Benton, Carroll, Franklin, Johnson, Marion, and Washington counties state disaster areas. He also released $50,000 from his disaster fund to help counties pay for the response to the emergencies.
Four people were killed in the tornadoes that struck late Tuesday and early Wednesday.
The National Weather Service said the tornado in Franklin County was rated EF-3, meaning it had wind speeds between 136 mph and 165 mph.
The tornado track started about two miles south of Branch and carved a path of 47 miles. The twister killed one woman in Etna and another in Denning, where it destroyed much of the town, exploding mobile homes, killing horses, snapping power poles and knocking over large trees.
The tornado that ripped through Johnson County traveled 27 miles and killed two people. It started about two miles west-northwest of Coal Hill to about eight miles northeast of Ozone. The weather service said the tornado was an EF-2, with winds between 110 mph and 135 mph.
The track of another tornado that went through Johnson County was being surveyed on Thursday by National Weather Service meteorologists. That tornado started early Wednesday at Clarksville, where the entire city of 8,600 people lost electricity.
Clarksville Light and Water Co. General Manager Mike Hughes said a main transmission line was knocked out, and there were broken poles and shredded lined throughout the city. He said about 90 percent of customers would have their power restored by the end of the work day Thursday.
River flooding remained a problem Thursday in east Arkansas, with the Highway and Transportation Department reporting roads closed due to flooding or washouts in 10 counties. Additionally, high water in Benton and Carroll counties led to road closures.
Searchers were still trying to find a fourth victim from a vehicle that washed away in a flash flood Monday night at Butler Creek in Benton County. The bodies of a woman and two children, ages 2 months and 5 years, were recovered Wednesday.
National Weather Service meteorologist Matthew Clay said the White River in east Arkansas was rising modestly because of releases from the Norfork and Bull Shoals dams.
"Our lakes right now are so high, they’ve been holding back so much water, that the water needs to be released so it doesn’t cause problems up there," Clay said.
The rise on the White River was only a few inches but enough to cause backwater on the Little Red River at Judsonia. The Little Red flows into the White.
The Mississippi River remains high, so floodwaters are still draining slowly where the White flows into the Mississippi north of Arkansas City.
The extra water flowing into the White could also cause backwater at Clarendon and Des Arc on the lower White.
Clay said the additional problems shouldn’t be severe as long as there is no significant rainfall, and none was in the forecast. The flooding has hurt farmers across east Arkansas, inundating a peak of 1 million acres of crop land.
Farmers in Lincoln County took another hit Wednesday, this time from hail.
University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture said Thursday that corn and cotton crops were pulverized by a 45-minute hailstorm. Between 5,000 and 6,000 acres were damaged.
Another storm casualty was the tornado warning siren system in Crawford County.
County emergency management director Dennis Gilstrap told the Southwest Times Record the primary system had a mechanical problem, then the backup system was hit by lightning or sustained some other sort of storm damage so the sirens never sounded. He said the system is being repaired.
No funnel touched down in Crawford County during the Tuesday-Wednesday storms.
There are slight chances of thunderstorms late Friday or early Saturday in the north of the state, but the National Weather Service says the system will move quickly through the state. Once it has passed, a high pressure ridge is forecast to move over Arkansas and bring only minimal rain chances for the Memorial Day weekend and beyond.
Arkansas Riverfest, a three-day event starting today, featuring music, food and other entertainment along the Arkansas River in Little Rock, should have clear weather, with highs in the 80s and lows in the 60s.