A leaf, still green and crisp from spring, floated past the SUV, which was parked at the water’s edge with the door open and Jim Lumsden sitting half in and half out of the driver’s seat.
“See that leaf?” Lumsden asked, pointing with a trembling finger. “See it?”
For three days, he had parked near this spot to watch leaves and sticks and debris float through the streets of his Town and Country neighborhood, 20 minutes west of downtown Tulsa. And until now, everything had been floating south, which meant the water was still rising. But this leaf on Thursday afternoon was floating north, toward the Arkansas River. And it couldn’t have made Lumsden happier if it had been delivered by a dove.
“That means the water is going down,” he said. “Finally. And by this time tomorrow, I should be able to get inside my house.”
After nearly 10 inches of rain fell in Tulsa over the past two weeks, the river crested Wednesday afternoon at 23.41 feet, the second-highest water level recorded in the Arkansas in Tulsa and less than 2 feet short of the all-time high set in 1986.
Earlier in the week, Travis Harness had flagged down a police officer to ask if he should evacuate his house in the Town and Country neighborhood. But the officer told him not to worry, Harness said. The water would never get high enough to reach his house, which was built on a raised foundation to stand 3 feet above the flood plain.
Fifteen minutes later, water was flowing into his yard as Keystone Dam opened its floodgates wider. And by the next morning, Harness needed a boat to get back to his house, where the water stood more than 2 feet deep in his living room.
Unable to do anything there, Harness was helping clean his sister’s house a few blocks south of his property. The water had already receded from her garage but was still lapping against the outside wall.
“She’s lucky,” Harness said. “It didn’t get very high in here.”
He was using a broom to push greenish-brown water out of a pantry, and the stench almost made him gag. A watermark on the wall reached knee-high, where the soaked Sheetrock looked as crumbly as wet cardboard. Pink insulation poking through a hole in the wall was soaking up the putrid water and pulling it higher into the house.
“This is all the Corps’ fault,” Harness said, stopping to lean against the broom. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers waited too long to begin letting water out of (Lake) Keystone, then had to dump too much too fast, he said.
And officials didn’t give his neighborhood enough warning to evacuate, he said.
“I guess they didn’t want to ruin Memorial Day for the lake,” Harness said. “What gets me is that we were told it was going to be OK. ‘Don’t worry.’ And now look at this mess.”
The Corps, however, can share information only with local officials, who are responsible for notifying the public, said Col. Chris Hussin, commander of its Tulsa District. Keystone Dam releases water based on actual rainfall, not weather forecasts, because forecasts can change or prove to be wrong, Hussin said.
“If we elect to prerelease water and the forecasted weather shifts to overlay the area impacted by the prerelease, we’ve created a flooding situation” instead of preventing one, he said. “Simply put, we have to make tough decisions to reduce excess water in our lakes faster than we prefer to ensure that the dams and levees hold.”
Water from Keystone Dam takes 10 hours to reach Bixby, where Dianne Shelton stepped over sandbags to reach her front door, footsteps echoing through an empty living room. The downstairs had only a couple of bar stools left, with the rest of the furniture crammed upstairs, where she had to wedge herself sideways through a narrow, zig-zagging aisle to find her bed. No antique store has ever looked so cluttered.
“But I can’t complain,” Shelton said. “All my stuff is dry, while others have lost everything.”
Early last week, Shelton’s family planted a 3-foot stick on top of a berm that stands between her backyard and Fry Ditch Creek, where it flows into the Arkansas about 200 yards south of The Chateaus housing development. At the time, the water was beginning to trickle over the top of the berm, but by Wednesday, only the very tip of the stick was still poking above the surface. The water had reached Shelton’s fence, and her stress level was reaching new heights, too.
“The hardest thing is not knowing what’s going to happen next,” she said. “You go to bed thinking, ‘Well, we made it through another day.’ Then you wake up and the water is still getting higher.”
By Thursday morning, however, the water had finally peaked. And by Friday afternoon, the top of the berm was visible again. If the water continued to recede, as expected, Shelton was going to take her furniture back downstairs this weekend, despite forecasts for scattered rain stretching into next week.
“The one good thing that came out of it,” said Roxanne Whiteis, Shelton’s daughter who lives in the same area, “is that the whole neighborhood has come together. I’ve talked to more of my neighbors in the last two weeks than in the last two years.”
Other neighborhoods may never be the same. One relief worker, who was surveying damage in the Town and Country neighborhood, predicted that some houses in west Tulsa and Sand Springs will have to be torn down.
“The owners may not know it yet, but it’s going to cost too much to fix some of them,” he said, not giving his name because his employer had not authorized him to speak to reporters. “You don’t spend $200,000 to fix a $150,000 house.”
Lumsden knows it. Now 92, he went through the flood of 1986 in the same house.
“I should have left then,” he said last week.
Instead, he replaced flooring, drywall and insulation and soon had more money invested than he could hope to recoup by selling.
Thirty-three years later, the water seemed 2 feet deeper in his house, Lumsden estimated. This time, however, he managed to move most of his belongings the day before the water rose, and now he has decided to rent a different house in Sand Springs. A house on higher ground.
He won’t come back to Town and Country.
“I’m done,” he said. “I’ve learned my lesson.”