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Murky waters 

WASHED OUT: Stewart Kirby stands in his sotted house.
  • WASHED OUT: Stewart Kirby stands in his sotted house.

A walk down Tori Lane in the Windwood Meadows subdivision in Beebe tells the tale. Dumpsters full of ruined sheetrock and soggy carpet stand in the street. A Ford pickup sits in a driveway over a puddle of watery motor oil. A ghostly gray water stain — three feet high in some places — is etched across garage doors, the reminder of the flood that slowly pushed into the simple, ranch-style houses just before Halloween and again, deeper, on Christmas Eve.

 

Stewart Kirby's house at 1031 Tori Lane got 15 inches of water in October, and three feet in December. Something of a gadfly around town — he got tongues wagging a few years back by starting a blog where parents could post criticism of Beebe schools — Kirby has been locked in a battle of words with the city since the October flood, firing off FOI requests for paperwork pertaining to Windwood Meadows and circulating a petition asking that the city work to secure federal funds to buy the houses and demolish the part of the neighborhood that lies deepest in the flood zone. Things have gone far enough that Beebe Mayor Mike Robertson issued a letter in The Beebe News referring to Kirby as “one individual who has shown an unwillingness to work toward a positive solution.” Meanwhile, many of the residents of Windwood Meadows are living elsewhere. Some face the possibility that they may have to demolish their houses even though their insurance won't pay off the remaining balance of their mortgage.

 

Kirby bought his house in 2003 with the understanding that it was not in a flood plain. It became apparent almost immediately that there was a problem. “The first time it rained real hard, the water started backing up in my street,” Kirby said. Alarmed, he went out and bought flood insurance through the federal National Flood Insurance Program. Later, he paid for a flood determination firm to reclassify the flood threat to his house. The report — based on U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development flood maps that became effective in 1977 — found that his house was in Flood Zone A, which has a high probability of being flooded.

 

Kirby has copies of an April 2002 letter to then-Mayor Donald Ward about an Arkansas Soil and Water Conservation Commission report that says the Base Flood Elevation (BFE) of 214.7 feet above mean sea level — the lowest point at which houses can be constructed in a given area without substantial risk of flooding — set for Windwood Meadows was too low, with the recommendation that the BFE should be raised to 220 feet. The BFE in the area was not raised to 220 feet until 2005. Kirby has also noticed a number of abnormalities in the documents relating to the construction of houses in Windwood Meadows. For example: The building permit for Kirby's own house is dated July 2000, but a separate permit to build the house in a Flood Hazard Area — of which the City of Beebe's own Floodplain Development Application packet says “you MUST obtain … prior to beginning the project” — is dated May 7, 2001. The form is signed by former Beebe Mayor Donald Ward, and is marked “No” where the form asks “is the proposed development site in a floodway?”

 

Calls to current Beebe Mayor Mike Robertson went unreturned at press time.   

 

After the Halloween and Christmas Eve floods, a determination by the local flood plain administrator put damages to Kirby's house at more than 50 percent of its value. Under FEMA regulations, any house that is insured through the NFIP that is damaged more than 50 percent must either be moved, elevated out of the flood zone, or demolished. Kirby's house, like most of the houses in his neighborhood, is built on a concrete slab, so it can't be moved or raised without considerable cost. He said his flood insurance only paid him a relatively small amount, and he still owes a balance on the mortgage.

 

Just down the block from Kirby's house is the former home of Greg Horness, at 1035 Tori Lane. A single father with two children, Horness moved into the house in January 2001; it was built with a loan from the federal Rural Development program. Constructed at an elevation of 214.7 feet above mean sea level, his house took 2.5 feet of water on Christmas Eve. Since the flood, he and his children have been forced to move to Lonoke and live with his mother, Emily Roberts. Roberts has been handling most of the paperwork associated with trying to sort things out. Her son, she said, was not aware the house was in a flood zone until he saw water creeping up the street during heavy rains the month after he moved in.

 

“The city was aware that it was a flood plain,” Roberts said. “They knew. They approved those houses. … All the people over there were just totally innocent.”

 

Like Kirby, Roberts has noticed some anomalies in the paperwork associated with her son's house. For example: The building permit for the house is dated May 7, 2001, almost three months after her son moved in. Greg Horness has received some state aid to help with the cost of damages to his house, but it hasn't been enough to cover everything. The problem, Roberts points out, is that if the damaged houses aren't demolished, residents will “patch” them, and eventually the water will be back at their doorsteps. Like Kirby, she thinks homeowners should be compensated and the area condemned.

 

“It just keeps going on and on. They either rent these houses or they sell them to people, and they're unaware of the flood problem,” Roberts said. “It's going to happen again and again.”

 

Milton McCullars is the local flood plain administrator. He said that while Beebe has tried to help people in Windwood Meadows, the city is ultimately not responsible. All but five of the houses in the neighborhood were built before the latest flood maps went into effect in February 2005, he said, and he noted that the five houses that have been built there since the city established the new BFE of 220 feet in the area didn't get flooded at Halloween or Christmas.

 

McCullars said that the problem in Windwood Meadows might be due to a trestle on the nearby rail line that was filled in during the 1990s, blocking one way for water to escape the area. He said that recent development around town — including three acres of parking lots constricted at ASU-Beebe, which increases flood runoff — might also be to blame.

 

“Having hindsight, you would try not to build in that area unless you did elevate everything over there,” McCullars said. “But it wasn't flooding when they built the houses back in 2000 (and) 2001.” McCullars said that Stewart Kirby is “stirring the pot” in Windwood Meadows, adding that Kirby “worked hard” to have his house declared substantially damaged because he doesn't want to build back in the area and risk the possibility of another flood. “I don't blame him,” McCullars said. “But then for him to come up and say the city is going to make him demolish his house because it flooded and hold the city responsible, that's ridiculous.”

 

McCullars said the city will have extensive information about the Halloween and Christmas Eve floods on hand should anyone come into his office to inquire whether a house they're thinking of buying or renting is in the flood plain, but added: “I'm sure the people don't want us to put up a sign saying, ‘You are now entering a special flood hazard area.' We would not do that, because the property values would drop. They've already dropped.”  

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