Gary and Connie Cook returned to their trailer home in Cherry Hill Mobile Home Park at 48th Street and South Elwood Avenue first thing Friday, only to find their wait for power restoration wasn’t over.
“Someone at the city told me you have to call PSO and you have to say you’re home and there’s no water in your home,” said Gary.
Connie added: “It has been quite a week and a half.”
The city of Tulsa began allowing residents to return to their homes Friday morning but cautioned that the process would take time.
“It will be done as each neighborhood has been identified as being safe,” said Mayor G.T. Bynum.
Returning residents will be asked by law enforcement to provide identification.
Bynum encouraged people to follow social media and local news outlets for the latest updates on neighborhood re-openings. The information is also available on the city’s website, cityoftulsa.org.
The Cooks fled their home of 9½ years amid a round of severe storms on May 21.
“The office here got hit a few years ago with a bunch of us inside taking shelter,” Connie said. Their first stop was a hotel room at River Spirit Casino Resort.
“The next day they closed because of flooding there, so they put us up in a Marriott,” Connie said.
They spent the next two nights in an east Tulsa hotel, but the hotel costs were adding up too quickly. They finally accepted a relative’s offer of help.
“We went to my sister-in-law’s one bedroom,” Connie said. “Don’t get me wrong, hotels are expensive. We were grateful she asked, but we’re glad to be home.”
“Now, we’re just waiting to get some AC!” said Gary, tugging the chain on his front porch ceiling fan only to find it still lifeless.
One street south, Lana Rickman had a U-haul truck full of her nicest furniture and clothing, plus important photos ready to be unloaded.
“We got a truck because we’ve got new bedroom furniture we still owe on,” she said, laughing.
She and her husband had a generator running while they waited on PSO crews to arrive, but they weren’t ready to unload their furniture just yet.
“We just put in new carpeting and flooring and the carpet warranty requires the carpet to be cleaned once a year. I figured while we’ve got so much furniture out, we might as well have the carpet cleaners come,” Rickman said. “We’ve lived here 22 years, and nothing like this has ever happened. I hope it’s another 22 years, because I’ll be retired by then and I’d have more time to deal with this.”
Residents of the Garden City neighborhood in the shadows of the oil refineries on the west side of the river weren’t without power for nearly as long, but pockets of outages remained there Friday morning as well.
Sam Poteet said his part of the neighborhood, which is closest to the river between West 36th Street to the north and West 37th Place to the south, lost power just after 8 p.m. Wednesday.
His house and most others there were powered back up about 10 a.m. Friday.
But Poteet was posted out on Galveston Street to help a neighbor, Michael Foster, whose half of that street had inexplicably not had its power turned back on.
Moments later, a PSO van with two workers turned onto the street. When Poteet waved for them to stop, the passenger started to roll down his window, but the van’s driver sped up and passed without stopping.
“Who do they think they work for?” Poteet shouted as the van drove away.
Poteet and Foster said they were frustrated that the only flooding in the lowest lying parts of the area was caused by water from storm drains — because a levee was added as protection from the river level after a major flood hit Tulsa in 1986.
He said a nearby city of Tulsa property and a trucking company had added their own drainage inside the levee without safety valves that could be shut off to prevent the flooding that occurred in Garden City this week.
“I don’t fault them for needing the drainage, but they needed to put valves on their ends,” Foster said. “There was a failure on a lot of people’s parts.”
In west Tulsa, some residents who fled as water seeped beneath the levee and into streets began returning Friday despite swarming mosquitoes and the overwhelming stench of the standing water.
Connie and Curtis Sollars’ home near West 12th Street and South 51st West Avenue stayed dry, but ankle-deep water remained throughout their yard and across most of the street. Curtis, a disabled veteran, sent Connie and their dog, Molly, out of harm’s way Monday along with most of the neighbors as concern for the levee grew with rising water.
“The water just kept coming up and coming up,” Connie said. “Then when the helicopters were coming and dumping sandbags, I was like, ‘uh oh.’
“I’m surprised it held.”
Curtis said he stayed to keep watch over the group of abandoned houses and called in as many sightseers who wandered in the area as he did potential looters. Their homes haven’t had power restored, both because of ongoing flooding and a tree that brought down power lines down the street.
With “nowhere to go and nothing to lose,” Curtis said he posted up in the street to ward off intruders, his Suzuki 550 motorcycle sitting ready in the event the levee broke and he had to flee. His backup plan was a boogie board resting against the front porch.
“You live in the river bottom, you can expect water,” Curtis said.
Chief Photographer Tom Gilbert went up in a helicopter to show what the flooding looked like on Friday.
As the sun shone again Friday in Tulsa and flood victims living along the Arkansas River corridor began to return home, local officials welcomed the good news but tempered it with a clear warning that dangers remain.
“We are not out of the woods completely,” said John Fothergill, a member of the Tulsa County Levee Advisory Board.
Speaking at a Friday morning press conference at the Tulsa Police Department’s headquarters, he said the National Guard and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continue to work along the 20-mile levee system that protects Sand Springs and west Tulsa.
He identified three locations along the levee of particular concern: 65th West Avenue and Charles Page Boulevard, where Levees A and B meet; and on Levee B, closer to downtown Tulsa, where sloughing, or erosion, has occurred; and at Pump Station No. 1 in Sand Springs, where there is a sink hole.
Sloughing occurs when the water level in a river decreases too rapidly, exposing soil on the river side of the levee that had been supported by the high water. When the wet, heavy soil falls down the face of the levee into the water, it can destabilize the levee.
“They are not a safe place to be,” Fothergill said.
Joe Kralicek, executive director of the Tulsa Area Emergency Management Agency, said after the news conference that his early preliminary estimate was that up to 2,000 homes countywide have been affected by the flooding.
He stressed that a definitive number will not be known until a thorough survey of the county has been completed, which will take several days.
“Those are people who may have had travel issues getting to their homes,” he said. “But I won’t know the number of homes that actually have water in them until I can get out and I can do a count.”
Kralicek said the worst local concentration of damage occurred in the Town and Country addition west of Sand Springs, where he estimated there could be 50 cubic yards of debris from each of the 200 to 300 homes that were flooded.
“This is not going to be a pleasant thing,” he said of the recovery effort there. “You’re going to find animals have moved into some of these houses.”
Town and Country residents were allowed to begin returning to their homes Friday night, and volunteers will be allowed to assist them Saturday.
“The way a muck-out procedure works, you go in, you pull everything out of that house that is beneath that water line,” Kralicek said. “In this case, some of those homes have water 6 to 8 feet up, so imagine everything in your house 8 feet and down has been sitting in the Arkansas River, how much that would be ruined.”
Mayor G.T. Bynum said the Corps of Engineers has indicated that if its releases from Keystone Dam continue to decrease as scheduled, the areas behind the levees should be safe by the end of the weekend.
“Now is not the time to move back,” Bynum said. “That is still a high-risk area. And if you are back there, I would encourage you to find somewhere else to stay.”
Bynum made his remarks as residents in Garden City and Cherry Hill Mobile Home Park in west Tulsa were learning that power had been restored to their neighborhoods and that they would be allowed to return home.
Yet he continued to urge those living behind the levees to stay away.
“Especially considering the fact, … as the engineers have told us, this is the moment when you see the most problems pop up on the levee system,” Bynum said.
One area that will remain closed is Riverside Drive near the Gathering Place. Bynum said the city is pumping stormwater from the neighborhood east of the park, across Riverside Drive, into the Arkansas River.
In most parts of the city “we are moving into a recovery stage,” the mayor said, adding that it would take years for all areas affected by the flooding to recover.
The elevation of the Arkansas River is the lowest it has been for more than a week but remains at flood stage, Bynum said, and Keystone Lake’s capacity to hold more water remains a concern.
Those factors, coupled with the unpredictability of the weather, makes it imperative that the levees be repaired as soon as possible, the mayor said.
“We are doing all this cognizant that we can expect more rain next week,” Bynum said.
Outflows from the Keystone Dam continued to decline throughout the day Friday and by 6 p.m. were at 185,000 cubic feet per second. As the dam releases declined, the Arkansas River was receding in Tulsa. The river was at 19 feet Friday evening and was forecast to fall below the 18-foot flood stage by Saturday morning, according to the National Weather Service. The river crested Wednesday afternoon at 23.41 feet.
Dr. Bruce Dart, executive director of the Tulsa Health Department, said the floodwaters have brought with them mosquitoes and that the department has already identified cases of West Nile virus.
One of the best ways to address those threats is to get rid of any standing water, Dart said.
“If you have a crinkled bag, mosquitoes can actually lay eggs on the bags and larvae can be produced,” he said. “So (removing) any amount of water, no matter how big or small, helps us reduce that.”
The Health Department is still receiving reports of people playing in floodwater, and it’s not a vision that pleases Dart.
“You know, when we say there is crap in floodwater, we are being literal,” he said. “So the exposure to infectious disease is huge — the chemical hazards and for injuries — so please, stay out of floodwater.”
Although Friday and much of Saturday could bring sunny skies to northeast Oklahoma, forecasters expect another long week of rain.
In an extended forecast released Friday morning, the National Weather Service in Tulsa said a thunderstorm complex will likely move into the area Saturday evening into Sunday, bringing with it areas of heavy rainfall.
Mike Lacy, a forecaster at the NWS Tulsa office, said there’s high confidence in storms but great uncertainty for where heavy rains will fall.
“We are confident that during those next several days into next week, we’ll see repeated complexes come into our area from the west and north,” Lacy said. “Depending on how these things track will determine who gets the heaviest rainfall. ... We do think we’ll have to issue flash flood warnings at times. It may also agitate parts of our river system.”
Despite several sunny days and receding floodwaters, flash flooding is a concern because much of the ground remains saturated. There is also a limited potential for severe weather, though not likely tornadoes, north of Tulsa on Saturday night as the storms move out of Kansas.
Storm chances will continue into next week as several disturbances move into the area, with perhaps the strongest coming Wednesday into Thursday, according to the forecast. Heavy rainfall could also reportedly lead to increased releases and river levels.
Storm systems moving in will be scattered, something Lacy said makes him think it will pale in comparison to the last few weeks.
“I have a hard time believing that we’re going to see exactly what we saw the latter half of May,” Lacy said.
“In two weeks’ time period, we’ve had more than a foot of rain over a good portion of northeast Oklahoma. ... I think what we’re going to see here over the next several days are pockets of heavy rainfall. There’s going to be smaller areas of big rainfall, rather than a widespread area of huge rainfall.”
Friday: Sunny, with a high near 86. Calm wind.
Friday night: Mostly clear, with a low around 64. Calm wind.
Saturday: Sunny, with a high near 88. South wind around 5 mph in the afternoon.
Saturday night: 50% chance of showers and thunderstorms. Mostly cloudy, with a low around 66. South wind around 5 mph.
Sunday: 30% chance of showers and thunderstorms. Mostly cloudy, with a high near 84. Calm wind.
Sunday night: 50% chance of showers and thunderstorms, mainly after 1 a.m. Mostly cloudy, with a low around 66. Calm wind.
Monday: 50% chance of showers and thunderstorms. Cloudy, with a high near 82. South wind around 5 mph in the afternoon.
Monday night: 50% chance of showers and thunderstorms. Mostly cloudy, with a low around 68. South wind around 5 mph.
Tuesday: 40% chance of showers and thunderstorms. Mostly cloudy, with a high near 84. South wind around 5 mph.
Tuesday night: 40% chance of showers and thunderstorms. Mostly cloudy, with a low around 70. South wind around 5 mph.
Wednesday: 40% chance of showers and thunderstorms. Mostly cloudy, with a high near 85. South wind around 5 mph.
Wednesday night: 40% chance of showers and thunderstorms. Mostly cloudy, with a low around 69. South wind around 5 mph.
Thursday: 40% chance of showers and thunderstorms. Mostly cloudy, with a high near 83. South wind around 5 mph.
After an oil release into the Arkansas River was spotted Thursday, state regulators have filed contempt proceedings against a Bixby operator and are notifying the federal Environmental Protection Agency of a possible violation.
The Oklahoma Corporation Commission is statutorily charged with responding to incidents involving the release of dangerous substances to ensure protective action is taken.
Commission spokesman Matt Skinner said a representative of Shanks Drilling and Production Co. in Bixby told regulators that he “opened valves to get water into his tanks to keep them from floating away, and oil got out.”
Skinner said there’s no way to gauge how much was released.
“Oil on water is impossible to measure,” he said, adding that the operator told regulators the release was “about five barrels.”
The Corporation Commission also is in the process of notifying the EPA, Skinner said, “because the release would be something that they would need to look at to see if it was a violation of their rules, as well.”
The EPA’s National Response Center requires notifications of all oil, chemical, radiological, biological and etiological discharges into the environment.
Skinner said he knew of at least four other reports of incidents related to flooding, including one in which the operator “took all the proper steps” to mitigate the release. He said the Shanks incident was the only one so far being reported to federal regulators.
A message left at the phone number for Shanks Drilling and Production Co. was not returned Thursday, and calls Friday indicated the phone number was disconnected.
“A release isn’t necessarily a violation,” Skinner said, adding there must be compounding factors to begin contempt proceedings. “The issue becomes ‘Are you cleaning it up right? Did you report it right?’ ”
He said it’s always the operator’s responsibility to contain a release and noted an incident in Wagoner County in which the operator, Endeavor Energy, immediately brought in containment booms and an environmental firm.
“They moved pretty fast on it, and they reported it to the NRC and took all the proper steps,” Skinner said. “We had that ... phoned into DEQ May 28, and it was handled by Friday last week.”
As for the release spurring the contempt proceedings, regulators haven’t been able to evaluate the situation firsthand.
“We can’t even get into the site,” Skinner said. “We tried and we just couldn’t do it. ... When you have flooding that is this massive, it’s largely waiting for the waters to recede and then take samples and visually inspect the areas to find out what needs to be done to remediate the areas.”
He said regulators did get a few reports that resulted in active containment where minimal flooding allowed crews to access the areas.
“In fast-moving floodwaters, contamination can spread. So we anticipate having a very busy time of it possibly having to oversee remediation of areas that are a distance away from where the spills occur,” Skinner said. “We won’t know until the floodwaters go down. With flooding this severe, some of the sites are not anywhere near the point of release.”
The release from Shanks’ tanks was visible as a Tulsa World photographer live-streamed an aerial tour of flooded areas Thursday, and newspaper staff contacted regulators right away.
“That’s why we were able to get out there,” Skinner said. “Public calls are very important.”
Hotlines are staffed 24/7 for those needing to report a dangerous substance being released into the environment.
Corporation Commission: 405-521-2211
Department of Environmental Quality (if drinking water is threatened): 800-522-0206
National Response Center: 800-424-8802