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FEMA fanning out to assess arkansas flood damage

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SAND HILL, Ark. (AP) -- There were sunny skies but rising waters Wednesday in eastern Arkansas, where federal officials have begun to gather their first damage assessments in the week-long floods that have displaced residents and soaked homes and businesses in nearly half the state.

The White River is higher than it has been in a quarter-century, flooding properties and farmland in east-central Arkansas. Much of a national wildlife refuge near Clarendon was inundated Wednesday, and residents in that town and elsewhere in Monroe County were sandbagging their homes and pumping out water from their basements.

The river is expected to crest early Friday at Clarendon at 6 ½ feet above flood stage. It was only a few inches below that Wednesday morning.

Monroe County Judge Larry Morris, the county's chief administrator, said he feared county roads would be cut off and the White River would start backing up as flood waters reach the raging Mississippi River on Arkansas' eastern border with Mississippi.

Morris was sheriff during floods in 1973, and said he remembers stories about huge logs from the Mississippi River traveling all the way upstream into his county.

"We don't know what the Mississippi is going to do yet," Morris said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency collected reports Wednesday morning from field workers who fanned out the previous day to determine the scope of damage where the waters have receded.

"We are getting a snapshot of damages within a county," FEMA spokesman Bob Alvey said. "The idea is to get information to Gov. Mike Beebe quickly so he can proceed with further requests for federal assistance for infrastructure repairs and for help for individuals.

After heavy rains last week, major rivers overflowed their banks, inundating north and central Arkansas and driving people from their homes and businesses. Almost half the state - 35 counties -- was declared a disaster area.

Beebe, on hand to visit some volunteers at the levee, described seeing the "devastating" flooding from the air on a recent helicopter trip across the state.

"It looked like just a solid lake from Batesville to Newport -- you couldn't tell where the river was," the governor said.

Teams of state and federal officials were deployed Tuesday to examine flood-damaged buildings and businesses. Officials first put damages at $2 million, but said it would likely rise well above that once the waters recede.

Meanwhile, residents in east-central Arkansas did what little they could while waiting for flood waters to subside.

Donald Holland and his wife moved three goats and nine chickens to higher ground but were having trouble finding their turkeys. Holland was so distracted he forgot it was his 68th birthday Tuesday.

"The water's about a foot deep around my trailer," Holland said. "I've got my boat tied up to my front porch."

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