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Ark. City Watches River Waters' Slow Rise

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Ark. City Watches River Waters' Slow Rise

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Ark. City Watches River Waters' Slow Rise

Ark. City Watches River Waters' Slow Rise

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The Mississippi River is expected to crest in Arkansas City, Ark., on Saturday at 53.5 feet, the highest it has reached since 1933. Host Scott Simon speaks with Desha County Judge Mark McElroy about living in the shadow of the river.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

The Mississippi River is expected to crest tomorrow in Arkansas City, Arkansas at 53-and-a-half feet. That would put the river at its highest point in more than 70 years.

Desha County Judge Mark McElroy joins us from his office in Arkansas City. Your Honor, thanks very much for being with us.

Judge MARK McELROY (Judge, Desha County, Arkansas): Thank you for calling.

SIMON: Judge McElroy, are people worried, or is this just part of life along the Mississippi?

Judge McELROY: We live every day by the river, you know. We watch it and, you know, it just flows by, and we - I kind of take it for granted. But now people are really living in fear. I had a call from my sister that was shopping in Pine Bluff, some 65 miles away...

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Judge McELROY: ...the other day, and she called and said that she had heard from a policeman there in Pine Bluff that the levy had broken at Arkansas City and they were evacuating the courthouse. I told her, well, I better get my lunchbox and be on my way because I didn't know about it.

So, you know, rumors are a terrible thing when people are living in fear.

SIMON: Yeah. Anyone leaving town?

Judge McELROY: We have some that have packed up some of their belongings and moved them to higher ground. We have a lot of panic, Scott. I had a woman call a while ago and she said, you know, I'm hearing the river going to break the levy, and when you evacuate use will you get the animals? And she said, I've got five little chickens. I said, you know, don't worry, we'll get the chickens out too.

So, the fear is real, and the people are panicking left and right. And I'm trying to keep calm. And I've had a meeting, Scott, with them at - from town to town, you know, trying to separate fact from fiction and telling them look, the river - the levy is extremely high, but we're monitoring the bowls and the seepage and, you know, there's no reason to panic, although I am standing with a lifejacket on and flippers and goggles. So that's the calming effect I have on them, I guess.

SIMON: And is it difficult for people who don't live along the flood zone to understand what it's like to have to contemplate evacuating?

Judge McELROY: It really is. I mean, it's hard to imagine how we feel when within 300 yards of my office I was walk over this earthen levy and the water is 50 feet over my head. And, you know, if that - that monster could break lose, you know, with a violent wave. So, you know, it's hard for people to imagine a wave of water say 50-feet high coming at you, that have never lived beside the river.

And until you see the Mississippi River, it's almost like that movie where they say, you call that a knife? This is a knife, you know. We see people in the west that's called a river a river, but the Mighty Mississippi is just what they say it is. It is mighty at this point.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. I have to ask a question on - that we get from people all across the country at the time of natural disasters like this. Why do so many people then live in an area that's on lower ground than a river knowing that this is always a possibility?

Judge McElroy: You know, I guess it's just our heritage, you know. I was raised on a farm and I remember I was, oh, eight or ten years old before I was able to get out of the Delta. And I remember my parents going west, and we got to the hills in Monticello which is some 65 miles away or 40 miles away. And I remember thinking, my goodness, look at these mountains, you know. And I didn't realize the whole rest of the world had humps in it. We were just as flat as a pool table over in our Delta.

And, you know, and that's where our roots are. That's where our families were raised, and that's where our heart is attached. So that's why we stay here. It's just as much a part of us as the Mississippi River is part of the Delta.

SIMON: Desha County Judge, Mark McElroy speaking from Arkansas City, Arkansas. Your Honor, thanks for being with us and good luck.

Judge McELROY: Thank you sir.

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