|Updated: 5/05/2011 10:54 pm
||Published: 5/05/2011 8:01 pm
JACKSONVILLE, Ark. (AP) - Flooding that forced an unprecedented closure Thursday along a busy section of Interstate 40 in eastern Arkansas disrupted commercial traffic and caused hours of delays that trucking companies warned could disrupt businesses nationwide.
Transportation officials said they have no choice but to wait until the White River recedes from the westbound lanes of the highway. Drivers bound for Little Rock were forced onto a 120-mile detour in Brinkley, as opposed to the normal 70-mile route, and many truckers had to end their days hundreds of miles from their planned stops.
"If you take a two-hour drive and it's now running five to six hours, it causes a major disruption in the whole supply chain," said Lane Kidd, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association. "That particular segment of interstate is so important to interstate commerce."
Officials closed I-40's westbound lanes between Brinkley and Hazen, a 23-mile stretch that includes a bridge spanning the swollen river. Drivers west of Hazen were able to take I-40 toward Little Rock.
Eastbound lanes had been open but were closed Thursday night, highway department spokesman Glenn Bolick said.
Motorists must take Arkansas Highway 63 to State Highway 165, get on Arkansas Highway 1 at DeWitt and head toward Marvell, Bolick said. From there, drivers can either take Highway 1 north to Forrest City or continue through West Helena.
The White River has been breaking water-level records for days, pushed by heavy rains and a backup along the Mississippi River. At Des Arc, just north of the interstate, the river hit 38.74 feet Thursday evening - more than a foot above the previous record. The river isn't expected to crest there until Saturday.
The interstate could remain closed through the weekend, Bolick said. He said it was the first time that flooding has shut down the interstate.
"We're just talking massive amounts of water going downhill," Bolick said. "There's never been that much water trying to go under the bridge."
Trucking companies reported two- to three-hour delays for drivers forced to take detours. Some were forced to cut routes short due to federal limits on how long commercial drivers can work, usually 10 or 11 hours before a mandatory break.
Cross-country drivers could avoid Arkansas by taking other highways, but drivers on regional routes would be more likely to face delays, officials said.
"The worry now is drivers running out of hours," said John Coppens, vice president of operations for Maverick USA, a Little Rock-based company that operates tractor-trailers across the U.S. and Canada. "Especially later at night, about half the drivers that travel that route are coming toward the end of their hours. They're going to have to end two hours earlier."
Trucker Jim Harris, who was driving his rig from Virginia to El Paso, Texas, was forced to cut his route short by about 200 miles when he arrived at the Brinkley detour at about 11 p.m. Wednesday, he said. Then it took about four hours to drive another 100 miles before he was forced to stop in the parking lot of a Walmart in Jacksonville, northeast of Little Rock.
"It was the detour to nothing," he said early Thursday afternoon, before starting up his truck's engine. He had about 1,000 miles to go, but expected the mandatory driving time limits would stop him about 300 miles short.
"You're pretty much told to park wherever you can," he said.
Arkansas Highway Police Chief Ronnie Burks doesn't expect federal regulations on driving time to be loosened, saying "the hours of service regulations are what they are." And some oversized trucks may have to be stopped entirely along the detour route because of height, weight and width limits, he said.
At least eight people have died since last week because of flooding in Arkansas, and at least 16 deaths have been attributed to severe weather since April 25.
Gov. Mike Beebe declared six more counties - Greene, Johnson, Lee, Nevada, Poinsett, and Pope - as disaster areas Thursday, a spokesman said. That means 63 of the state's 75 counties have been declared disaster areas, as tornadoes and flooding have hit much of the state.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)