Residents of the Town and Country addition west of Sand Springs on Monday accused government officials of failing to give them proper warning of potential flooding.
Hundreds of homes in the neighborhood are under water, with more expected to be flooded as the release from Keystone Dam increased from 255,000 to 275,000 cubic feet per second Monday.
Janet Cisco said she has several feet of water on her 2-acre property.
“They didn’t evacuate. They didn’t tell us soon enough,” Cisco said. “They have been lying to us all along about how much water is coming out.”
The flooding along the Arkansas River has led to evacuations, and even more homes are at risk. Workers are scrambling to protect them as they try to keep a 70-year-old levee system intact.
Those efforts included a National Guard helicopter Monday afternoon and evening. The chopper was hauling massive sand bags in an effort to repair a spot in a levee at 49th West Avenue near Charles Page Boulevard west of downtown Tulsa. Water had not breached the levee, officials said.
Instead, officials were attempting to repair an issue known as a sand boil, when water begins bursting through the ground behind a river levee.
“This is a maintenance issue,” said Joe Kralicek, director of the Tulsa Area Emergency Management Agency. “The levee is performing as it’s designed.”
Earlier Monday, officials who visited the Town and Country neighborhood met with Cisco and about 30 other residents and heard their concerns.
When Todd and Lisa Sanders step out their front door on Town and Country Drive, they see rising water filling the street and homes flooding all around them.
They spent Monday placing sandbags around their house and speaking with Tulsa County Commissioner Karen Keith.
“The only reason why we know what is going on is because of our Facebook page,” Lisa Sanders said. “We feel like we’ve been left out, and it’s all about Meadow Valley, because they’re in Sand Springs city limits. We are outside of the city limits, so we’re kind of left hanging.”
The Sanders family and other Town and Country residents said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continues to do a poor job of managing water levels in the Arkansas River and in area lakes in anticipation of spring rains.
The Corps also puts too much emphasis on keeping water levels high for boating and business purposes, Lisa Sanders said.
“Well, guess what? There ain’t nobody doing it (recreational boating) now,” she said.
David Williams, chief of hydrology and hydraulic engineering for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Tulsa District, told the Tulsa World on Monday that the agency has worked closely with local officials the past four weeks to keep the public informed about possible flooding downstream.
“We try to give several hours of notice every time we make any change on releases,” Williams said, adding: “I believe we’ve attempted to do that and have done so as much as possible.”
Keystone Dam is operated according to a plan approved by Congress that sets standards for flow rates, reservoir levels and other operational issues, Williams said.
First and foremost, the dam serves to mitigate flooding downstream, he added.
“It has not been operated in the interest of recreation during this flood. It has been operated in the interest of flood control, as we are authorized by Congress to do,” Williams said.
He said it is important to remember that although the dam is designed to mitigate downstream flooding, there is always a level of risk.
“And when you have an event like this, where you have an extraordinary rainfall and you fill all the flood-control storage, the consequence of that is you have to start making releases from the dam,” he said.
Area officials, including Keith and Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, began warning the public on Wednesday to prepare for the worst, saying there were too many variables in play to predict with certainty what would happen.
Keith reiterated that message to Town and Country residents Monday.
“I want to err on the side of worst-case scenario. That’s what I want everybody to think about,” she said.
Keith said the 20-mile-long levee system protecting Sand Springs and west Tulsa continues to hold up, despite having unprecedented levels of water on it for an extended period of time.
“We do have a lot of resources there to help,” she said.
Keith said Town and Country was hit worst by the flooding and that she thinks more could have been done to keep residents there informed.
She said she plans to have a public meeting after the flood to let residents speak directly with FEMA, the Corps, the Sheriff’s Office and other government agencies charged with responding to the crisis.
“You really are the hardest-hit area,” Keith told neighborhood residents. “That is why I want to have this meeting. I want to address those issues.
“We want to talk about what happened. We want to talk with the Corps. We want to make sure public safety comes before power generation and before recreation.”
Keith was joined by U.S. Rep. Kevin Hern.
“The big question they’re asking first is, ‘Why didn’t they know?’” Hern said after touring the flooded neighborhood by boat. “We want to find out how we can do better, especially today. Because these are some of the same concerns I heard from 1986 (flooding).”
The River Spirit Casino Resort has extended its closure until at least June 5, but the situation will be reassessed Wednesday to determine whether the closure will be extended further.
The resort has been closed since May 22, and the pedestrian trail alongside the resort has been closed indefinitely.
“Like everyone in Tulsa, our decisions are dependent on the information we receive, and it continues to change day-to-day,” River Spirit CEO Pat Crofts said in a press release Monday. “We need to learn the impact of the anticipated storms on Tuesday in Oklahoma and Central Kansas prior to sharing an estimated re-opening date.”
Parts of Kansas are in the Arkansas River watershed.
On Monday, the River Spirit’s pool deck area began to take on water from the Arkansas River, which continued to rise throughout the day as more water was released from the Keystone Dam west of Sand Springs. Portions of the south parking lot and the parking garage’s lower level had flooded earlier.
Officials said the main parts of the casino, the hotel, and Margaritaville and Ruth’s Chris restaurants are not being threatened by the water. Those facilities are 13 feet higher than the pool deck.
“As designed, the water levels have not entered the interior of the primary floors,” Crofts said.
The pedestrian trail has been converted for use by security and for maintenance equipment, according to a press release.
“For the safety of the public and our teams, we need to close the trail until further notice,” Crofts said. “We are utilizing the trail to relocate equipment and shuttling crews from our most northern parking. This allows us to not hinder the traffic on Riverside Drive to the benefit of the public.”
The resort, south of 81st Street on Riverside Parkway, is a property of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and employs 1,600 workers. It has a biweekly payroll of approximately $2.5 million, and its employees will continue to be paid while the resort is closed, according to a press release.
Another 200 employees work at the Margaritaville and Ruth’s Chris restaurants at the resort.
“All facilities on the property remain structurally sound and, as designed, are withstanding the current level of release of 275,000 cubic feet per second from the Keystone Dam,” Crofts said. “We accounted for the possibility of a 100-year-flood and beyond.”
A delicate balance is playing out as Keystone Lake is projected to bulge to its overflow limit by lunchtime Tuesday and then begin receding hours before more storms may roll in.
The Tulsa District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expected the lake’s inflow and outflow to mercifully equalize Monday night — meaning water flowing into the lake would match the amount of water flowing out. The lake’s intake is predicted to be 250,000 cubic feet per second by lunchtime Tuesday, allowing for a modicum of storage capacity as the dam’s release was set to remain at 275,000 cfs through Thursday.
Engineers think the lake won’t overflow the floodgates and create a catastrophic situation; but there’s a looming issue: More rain is in the forecast Tuesday and Wednesday.
“Any significant rainfall on the lower basin or reservoir is problematic,” said David Williams, Tulsa District chief of hydrology and hydraulics engineering. “We just don’t have capacity. So if the inflow once again increases due to additional storms, we would have to adjust the outflow, because we do lack the capacity in the pool.”
Thunderstorms are forecast to develop west of Tulsa on Tuesday afternoon, then move into the area mainly along and north of Interstate 44 into the early evening hours. Another round is forecast to come through Wednesday afternoon along and south of I-44.
Williams feels “pretty comfortable” with projections but is hoping for scattered showers, which likely wouldn’t have much affect compared to widespread storms.
“This is the culmination of a flood that is now in its fourth week,” Williams said. “I know that it seems like only a weeklong event or so, but we’ve had excessive rainfall in the basin for a month now.”
The dam’s outflow of 275,000 cfs began at 7 a.m. Monday, up from 255,000 cfs. The highest release rate from Keystone Dam was 307,000 cfs in 1986, when the river reached a record level of 25.21 feet in Tulsa.
The river, which had been at about 21 to 22 feet in Tulsa since Thursday, had inched up to 22.75 feet as of 3:30 p.m. Monday.
With the increased dam output, floodwaters claimed more territory in River Parks and on Riverside Drive.
Floodwaters affected the west side of the Gathering Place, which closed its Sports Courts and Skate Park.
The River Parks trails were closed after erosion formed sinkholes, and Riverside Drive was partially closed Monday from Southwest Boulevard to Denver Avenue and from 21st Street to 31st Street.
East 38th Place, 39th Street, 26th Street, and Cincinnati Avenue were barricaded near Riverside Drive.
Luke and Ashley Emert could be seen moving into their home with the help of family near 39th Street and Cincinnati Avenue as floodwaters covered the intersection.
“We must look pretty silly,” Ashley Emert said.
She said they recently began moving into the home, which they had been renovating, and were welcomed with tornado warnings and flooding.
Luke Emert said he didn’t think the water would come as far as it did, which was licking the curb of their corner. But the pair wasn’t too concerned about it reaching their home.
Mike Stone, Ashley Emert’s father, said the family is trying to keep a positive attitude.
“Best time to move is when you’ve got a flood,” he joked, adding that they prayed over the move.
If God can part the Red Sea, then the Arkansas River should be a piece of cake, he said.
It will be a more difficult challenge for humans.
The inflow into Lake Keystone hasn’t been consistently below 250,000 cfs since 11 p.m. Wednesday. Williams thinks it will decline to that level by lunchtime Tuesday.
That may be only hours before more storms arrive.
Robert Darby, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said the Tulsa metro area is in a vulnerable position.
Darby said wind, hail and isolated tornadoes are possible with each system. But Wednesday harbors the highest likelihood for substantial rains — up to 2 to 3 inches — that would trigger flash flooding in the metro area.
“This is an historic event, so we don’t know exactly how the drainage systems will work with the Arkansas this high,” Darby said, adding that lakes, rivers and creeks are at their capacities.