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The ditch in front of Autree McCall's house in North Little Rock's Dark Hollow neighborhood doesn't go anywhere. About the size of a large bathtub, choked with grass, the ditch used to have culverts that allowed water to flow under the driveway, but they've long since silted up and disappeared. McCall, one of the old line residents of Dark Hollow, has lived in the area for more than eight decades. She said flooding has always been a problem there. Back in the 1940s, she said, cabs wouldn't come to the neighborhood for fear of getting stuck.
All that came to a head on Christmas Eve last year. The skies opened, and before the rain stopped, the house on East 16th Street where McCall lives with her daughters took several feet of flood water. McCall had to be rescued by the fire department. Most of their belongings were soaked, and the floors and walls took heavy damage. Like many residents of Dark Hollow, she tends to believe city fathers haven't done enough about the problem over the years. "They promise, but they don't come through," she said. "I'm 88 now, and they haven't done anything."
City officials say solving the problem of drainage in Dark Hollow — a former swamp, with just a little more slope than a pool table — is tricky business, compounded by the massive projected cost of a long-term solution. For now, residents are in limbo, with many of them living in flood-damaged houses they can't fix because the government puts a $2,000 cap on reconstruction assistance to those who live in a federally designated flood plain.
Willie McFadden Jr. lives in the house his father built, a few blocks from the McCalls, at 16th and Beech. Like Autree McCall, 63-year-old McFadden had to be evacuated in a boat during the Christmas flood. He still hasn't been able to repair his house. He said that people in Dark Hollow are reluctant to speak up to city officials about the problems there. "Getting people in this community to go face the system is one of the hardest things in the world to do," he said. "People think the taxes are going to be raised and so on. But I know that if you want city services, you've got to pay taxes."
Even a bump in taxes will likely not be enough to fix the problem. Mike Smith, chief engineer for the City of North Little Rock, said that many of the problems with drainage in the area can be traced to the Redwood Tunnel, which runs a half-mile from Dark Hollow to the Arkansas River. Built at the turn of the 19th century (before the extensive development in the Lakewood/McCain Mall area), with a cross-section of only about 40 square feet, it's woefully inadequate to handle the load. When it backs up, Dark Hollow floods.
"It drains a couple thousand acres," Smith said. "The conduit that would be adequate for that size basin is in the order of 10 times as big as the Redwood Tunnel."
The Army Corps of Engineers has suggested solutions to the problem, but none of them are cheap. To build an adequate tunnel to drain the area, for instance, carries a price tag upwards of $27 million. Though the similarly low-lying areas around Argenta are kept dry by four pumping stations, Smith said that a pumping station for Dark Hollow would be similarly cost-prohibitive. The Argenta pumps are close to the Arkansas River, he said, and can simply push storm water over the levee. A pumping station for Dark Hollow would have to push the water a half mile to the river. "It would be on the magnitude of one of these down in New Orleans," he said. In layman's terms: big, complicated and expensive.
Undoubtedly compounding the problems in Dark Hollow is the city's in-lieu drainage fund, which allows developers to pay a one-time fee rather than contain water on projects the Planning Commission believes won't contribute to flooding. Developers of commercial, industrial and apartment properties pay $5,000 per acre into the fund, while builders of single-family homes pay $500 per acre. The fund is commonly portioned out for projects in the drainage basin — there are eight in North Little Rock — in which the development that contributed to the fund is located. Few developments affect Dark Hollow. The fund, Planning Director Robert Voyles said, "Is not a good source for addressing old problems." The City Council could direct some of those funds to be used in Dark Hollow, he added.
Belinda Burney, elected president of the Dark Hollow Community Development Corp. in January, just after the deluge, has made flooding in the area a priority. "They need to improve the drainage," Burney said. "They dig a — quote — 'ditch' to help ease it, but that's only one. It's not enough to cover this whole area. That ditch it runs into overflows." After the flooding, Burney tried to talk to the city about getting federal funds to help fix people's houses, only to be told about the $2,000 cap. Most homeowners in Dark Hollow didn't have flood insurance, which can run $2,000 a year.
Burney said that the city should worry less about securing the long-forthcoming Bass Pro Shops for the area, and focus more on the neighborhood. "I'm interested in getting the area developed so people can enjoy their lives," she said. "The Bass Pro Shops, that should be taken care of later, after you take care of the residents who live here."
The city has been courting Bass Pro for a shopping center that would be located south of Interstate 40 in a wetland.
Mary Beth Bowman, director of North Little Rock's Community Development Agency, said that, "My understanding is that it's very hard to get a designation removed. ... You can help with the flooding, but to get it removed from the flood plain is not an easy task."
U.S. Congressman Vic Snyder recently proposed a $1.9 million dollar earmark that would coat the inside of the Redwood Tunnel and hopefully keep that artery flowing. North Little Rock Public works is doing some ditch-restoration in the area, and routinely uses a large vacuum to clear culverts of mud and silt, which collect due to the low pitch. For 88-year-old Autree McCall, however, there's nothing to do but keep the faith, and a watchful eye out for dark skies.
"The only thing that can be done is for the higher-ups to do their part," she said. "They know how to control the water. They know what to do. They go to school for these things. We don't."
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