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Severe storms push area lakes, river systems to the limit with inundating rainfall; one death reported

A powerful storm system that dropped tornadoes and more than 6 inches of rain in some areas resulted in life-threatening flooding on Tuesday and pushed the Arkansas River closer to its highest level since the flood of 1986.

Despite a threatening forecast with the potential for destructive, long-track tornadoes on Monday, the tornado threat in the Tulsa area didn’t fully materialize until a second wave of storms moved in early Tuesday morning. But flash flood warnings proved accurate as communities north and west of Tulsa received more than 6 inches of rain, sending lake levels up overnight and leading to at least one death and numerous high-water rescues.

Emergency responders in Payne County recovered one body from a car that was swept off a road in Perkins on Tuesday evening, the Perkins Emergency Management Agency reported. The agency said the driver drove around a barricade into high water.

Gov. Kevin Stitt said during a news conference at the Governor’s Mansion early Tuesday evening that there was “widespread damage across our entire state.”

“The frightening part is we’ve got more rain and more storms on the forecast for (Wednesday) and possibly Thursday,” he said.

At least 11 tornadoes touched down in the state Monday and Tuesday morning, according to the Storm Prediction Center.

A tornado detected by the National Weather Service in north Tulsa around 6:40 a.m. Tuesday destroyed at least one residence, severely damaged several others and uprooted numerous trees, causing one injury. The NWS office in Tulsa assigned the tornado a preliminary rating of EF-1.

Another tornado, with a preliminary rating of EF-2, hit the communities of Peggs and Leach near the Cherokee/Delaware county line late Monday.

Stitt took a helicopter tour of El Reno, Kingfisher and Mangum on Tuesday. He is expected to view damage in Tulsa, Bixby, Skiatook and other eastern Oklahoma communities on Wednesday morning.

In Tulsa, city personnel had at one point blocked off more than a half-dozen streets due to flooding. The intensity of the rainfall prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to increase the rate of water released from the Keystone Dam to 160,000 cubic feet per second Tuesday evening.

“I think there’s perhaps an inclination after the big storm’s passed to think that we can all take a deep breath and relax and not worry about anything,” Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said during a Tuesday afternoon news conference. “But there is a tremendous amount of rain deposited in our watershed that has been flowing into Keystone Lake for the last couple of days now.

“Flooding along the Arkansas River is something that we all need to be observant of. I’d ask that all Tulsans keep an eye out and be vigilant.”

The Caney River and Bird Creek reached major flood stage, and the Corps of Engineers said Tuesday that the Arkansas River could reach or exceed its flood stage by the end of the week. The NWS said in a tweet that if that occurs, the river level will be the highest in Tulsa since the 1986 flood.

“With the rainfall that occurred yesterday and last night, we had a tremendous amount of rainfall that fell above the reservoir. Totals up to 9 inches, maybe more than that, in areas of Pawnee and Osage counties,” Corps civil engineer David Williams said. “(The increase in release) will result in minor flooding downstream from the (Keystone) Dam.”

Williams said the move will help ensure that the lake has room to hold more water in case of future severe storms.

Tulsa County Commission Chairwoman Karen Keith said county personnel “did a lot of sandbagging” at levees within the past week. She noted specific efforts in the area of Newblock Park along Charles Page Boulevard as well as around Bigheart and Harlow creeks.

Keith said the county’s levee commissioner reported that “everything is going well” and that “the pumps are doing their jobs.”

“I think we are as prepared for this release rate as any community could possibly be,” said Joe Kralicek, executive director of the Tulsa Area Emergency Management Agency. “We do not think that there is any potential impact situation along the areas behind the levees. We believe those to be secure and sound in regards to this release rate.”

Bynum also said he did not expect homes to see impact, but he said “Tulsa is not a city that is unaccustomed to dealing with flooding.” He encouraged those living along the Arkansas River to remain vigilant and regularly monitor the city’s social media channels for information.

“We do foresee some potential (flooding) impacts, as far as the southern area of the county, in the Jenks area and possibly in the Bixby area,” Kralicek said. “And so we do want to urge those residents of Tulsa County in that area to be ready, to be vigilant and to be prepared to evacuate if responders ask you to.”

John Wiscaver, executive vice president of the Grand River Dam Authority, said his organization defers to the Corps for flood control but that it was too early to tell whether water levels will top the flood pool along the Grand River.

“We believe right now we’re within capacities that flooding shouldn’t be a problem,” he said. “Obviously, due to whatever the Corps’ direction is on release of water, if that became an issue, we have an obligation to and would make the public aware of that.

“The realistic expectation is not only Grand Lake and Lake Hudson, that all reservoirs will be at or near capacity that feed into where the three rivers meet north of Muskogee. We’ve got a water table issue.”

Tornado strikes north Tulsa neighborhood, causing one injury, damage to numerous homes from fallen trees

At first, Jacqueline Chadwick thought suburbs to the south and west of Tulsa would see the worst of the storm damage. She had a local weather broadcast playing on her TV and had just called a relative south of town to let him know he should take cover from a possible tornado.

But shortly after she went to her porch to get a better look at the rainfall, the wind suddenly picked up, making it impossible to clearly see the fence to her backyard.

“Me and my dog barely made it to the bathroom,” said Chadwick, whose home is in the 1300 block of North St. Louis Avenue. “Cabinets are off the walls. There are holes, cracks and pictures down. The china cabinet fell over. It was like it just tried to suck (the interior) from the inside out.”

A short distance from Chadwick’s home, Rick Bryant watched as crews got to work on freeing his home and pickup truck from the tree he and his wife planted 38 years ago. The tree fell on top of the front portion of his home in the 1400 block of North Trenton Avenue, while another tree in his backyard hit the back side of the residence.

“I woke up when it (the tree) crashed into my house,” Bryant said. “I got up off the couch, realized my weather (broadcast) was not running anymore so I opened up the front door and all I could see was tree.”

The National Weather Service reported a tornado touched down in north Tulsa between 6:30 a.m. and 7:15 a.m. Tuesday, creating a path of damage in a neighborhood from Peoria Avenue to Lewis Avenue between Marshall and Pine streets.

Tulsa Fire Department spokesman Andy Little said at least one person sustained injuries after a tree fell on top of his residence and that authorities have so far responded to about 10 water rescue calls due to flash flooding.

The weather service gave the tornado a preliminary rating of EF-1. EF-1 tornadoes have winds of 86-110 mph.

“It’s the scariest thing you’ll ever go through,” Chadwick said, noting her back porch no longer exists and her two sheds were also destroyed. “They say it sounds like a freight train. It’s worse than a freight train. I have never heard that kind of noise in my life.”

Abraham Ruelas owns a house in the same neighborhood and was among the first to answer the injured man’s cries for help from the rubble at the intersection of Newton and St. Louis. He and his family were inside their home watching the weather when the storm hit, tearing apart his garage but sparing most of the home and his Dodge Charger.

Though he didn’t think the sound resembled that of a freight train, Ruelas said “it sure was pretty loud.”

Authorities reported the man, who hasn’t yet been identified, was able to get his family to a safe spot before he got pinned in the damage, possibly breaking an arm.

Giovani Vargas, a next-door-neighbor who’s lived in the area for 20 years, said his family’s home sustained roof damage that caused water to drip inside. Family members covered the roof with a tarp pending permanent repairs and discovered a neighbor’s metal awning had been crumpled up and landed in their yard.

“We were all trying to exit. But then it blew the door closed and it was too late to leave, so we just went to the bathroom,” Vargas said. “As soon as we came out, we saw the tree and a guy on the other side stuck. We had to go help him. We called 911 and stayed until (the Fire Department) got there.”

When asked about the extent of the damage, Little said, “I would think it would be some time before someone can live here again.” Vargas said the man had been renting the home.

“I’d say he’s very lucky. It could very easily have gone a different way,” Little said. “While it’s hard to wrap your head around being lucky when something this serious happens, he is very fortunate.”

Sporadic storm-related damage continued east loosely along Newton Street, toppling trees at random and blanketing the neighborhood in debris and downed power lines. Firefighters stood watch at a home near Pine Street and Harvard Avenue as a live wire arced out of control, with Public Service Company of Oklahoma crews nearby trying to shut the power off and keep nearby houses from catching fire.

Chadwick and Bryant said they watched local weather alerts vigilantly, though they predicted the storms would be at their strongest on Monday rather than Tuesday.

”I think it could have been a whole heck of a lot worse,” Bryant said of the damage at his house. “It was raining like crazy after this thing fell. My wife and I have been looking around with flashlights to make sure we weren’t getting any water in. So I’m hopeful there’s not much roof damage and the only structure I hope is the porch that I’m going to get done new.”

However, a home belonging to Chadwick’s next-door-neighbor — an elderly woman — sustained severe damage and is also likely uninhabitable. Chadwick said she managed to get ahold of her husband, who returned home and helped her begin to determine the level of devastation.

”There’s no telling what damage they have on the inside of their house,” she said. “It’s a heck of an experience. Something nobody wants to deal with.”

Cherokee Supreme Court to hear Walkingstick's disqualification appeal Friday; more complaints filed against attorney general, Hoskin-Warner campaign

David Walkingstick has given formal notice that he will appeal his disqualification from the Cherokee Nation principal chief race, while more election complaints have been lodged against an opponent of his and the tribe’s Attorney General’s Office.

A hearing in the tribe’s Supreme Court is set for 9 a.m. Friday, which is eight days before the June 1 election. Attorney General Todd Hembree said his office will argue against a reversal of the Election Commission’s unanimous decision last week to disqualify Walkingstick for accepting in-kind campaign donations from a corporation.

A California lawyer who is a Cherokee citizen recently filed another two election complaints — one against Hembree and his office and the other against the Chuck Hoskin Jr.-Bryan Warner campaign for principal chief.

The lawyer, Michael Moore, contends that Hembree and other attorneys in his office must recuse themselves from the Walkingstick matter because of donations made by Hembree’s wife and other office attorneys to the Hoskin-Warner campaign. Moore cites a Cherokee law that says the attorney general shall disqualify any attorney, officer or employee of his or her office if participation in a matter “may result in a personal, financial, or political conflict of interest, or the appearance thereof.”

Hembree previously found no conflict of interest in a similar complaint filed by Moore. Hembree said political contributions are prohibited by Cherokee Law only for election commissioners, gaming commissioners and Phoenix editorial board members — not the Attorney General’s Office.

“If there is a motion filed by a proper party in a proper court, we will respond,” Hembree said Tuesday. “This issue was considered by the commission in the Walkingstick matter, and the commission did not recuse this office.”

Moore also alleges that Hoskin and Cherokee Future LLC — a vendor used by the campaign to carry out election matters and owned by Hoskin’s father — fraudulently represent it as a not-for-profit organization when online government records list it as a limited liability company.

Moore told the Tulsa World he doesn’t have documentation that Cherokee Future is a 501(c)3 nonprofit. But he said if it is a 501(c)3, then the IRS code prohibits the organization from directly or indirectly participating in political campaigns.

The Hoskin-Warner campaign stated that Cherokee Future is an LLC that is a not-for-profit but not a 501(c)3.

“Michael Moore’s complaint is another in a long line of frivolous complaints intended to confuse voters and has no basis in fact,” according to the Hoskin-Warner campaign.

Meanwhile, Walkingstick is working to gain reinstatement in the race with only days to go before the election. Hoskin and Dick Lay are the only two candidates for principal chief now.

Walkingstick posted a video statement on his Facebook page Tuesday afternoon, calling the commission’s decision “deeply concerning” for Cherokee democracy and its citizens’ ability to exercise rights granted under the U.S. Constitution.

“We are not second-class citizens, as the Election Board seemed to be stating in their decision,” Walkingstick stated. “We are afforded all rights. But when an unelected board of Cherokee citizens close to the chief can remove a candidate without due process or evidence of wrongdoing, it highlights something fundamentally wrong with our election process.

“There is a problem that we must address immediately to avoid continuing down this road of corruption and cronyism.”

The due process comment is a reference to text messages and emails that indicate or show Walkingstick and his campaign communicating with Cherokees for Change LLC. The hearing on the matter was an administrative hearing — not a court proceeding — and the commission and its general counsel made clear that the rules of evidence didn’t apply.

Vice Chairwoman Pamela Sellers overruled multiple objections from Walkingstick’s attorney not to admit exhibits in which he was unable to cross-examine people who sent the messages. Each time, Sellers said the commission wanted to see all the evidence.

The four election commissioners at the May 17 hearing — Sellers, Rick Doherty, Carolyn Allen and Randy Campbell — unanimously agreed that Walkingstick accepted illegal in-kind contributions from a corporation. Chairwoman Shawna Calico was absent because of a death in her family.

The four determined that there was “extensive phone, text, and email communication” with Rusty Appleton, who founded Cherokees for Change LLC before he officially withdrew as the Walkingstick campaign’s financial agent.

At issue are whether Cherokees for Change made in-kind contributions to Walkingstick’s campaign and whether he accepted them.

Walkingstick and Cherokees for Change both contend that the company operated independently of the campaign and conformed to stricter U.S. regulations because Cherokee law doesn’t address political action committees.

“It makes no difference that Walkingstick or Cherokees for Change, LLC allege they met or exceeded the federal rules and regulations on the extent to which a legal entity can coordinate with a candidate for federal office to whom they are providing support in the form of independent expenditures,” election commissioners wrote. “In Cherokee Nation, it is illegal for a candidate to accept in-kind contributions from an LLC.”

Legal briefs in the matter are to be filed with the Cherokee Supreme Court by Wednesday afternoon, with responses to the briefs due Thursday afternoon.

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