With more rainfall in the forecast and the Keystone Dam reservoir at capacity, local officials on Tuesday again urged those living in the Arkansas River corridor to prepare for flooding equal to the flood of record in 1986.
Mayor G.T. Bynum said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to continue releasing 275,000 cubic feet per second of water from the dam, but that number could increase, depending on the weather. In 1986, the Corps released 307,000 cfs.
“The rain levels are simply too unpredictable,” Bynum said Tuesday at an afternoon news conference. “We’re expecting more rain storms to arrive tonight, potentially tomorrow as well, and it’s too early today to know how those storms might impact the releases from Keystone.”
The mayor said the 20-mile levee system protecting Sand Springs and west Tulsa is operating as designed but strongly encouraged residents living behind them to voluntarily relocate.
The relocations are being encouraged to ensure that residents have enough time to leave their homes and to maintain public safety and order, Bynum said.
“The more people who can move out of there in advance of anything happening — if anything does even happen — the better it is not just for them but for their neighbors’ ability to leave the area as well,” the mayor said.
Bynum said he would not hesitate to seek mandatory evacuations if he thought they were necessary but that he had not yet reached that conclusion.
“We continue — obviously, 24 hours a day — to monitor the condition of the levees; and if we are ever told by the Corps experts who are monitoring the stability that there is an emergency, we will immediately evacuate that area,” he said.
David Williams, chief of hydrology and hydraulic engineering for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Tulsa District, said the Corps plans to keep the release out of Keystone Dam at 275,000 cfs through Thursday.
“The good news is that the elevation of the reservoir is peaking today, and you will see it begin to fall later during the day,” Williams said.
The bad news — or “problematic” issue as Williams described it — is the rainfall forecast for Tulsa and upstream Tuesday night and Wednesday.
“Now, I want to strongly caution you that we don’t have capacity in the reservoir for additional flood-control storage,” Williams said. “… So just keep that in mind — we may need to make changes to the current schedule of releases and the plan to reduce those releases if additional rain falls in the vicinity of the reservoir.”
With relatively constant flow down the Arkansas River below Kaw Reservoir, the primary relief for Keystone Tuesday came with reduced flow from the Cimarron River, Williams said. The lake level remained relatively steady at its maximum elevation of 757 feet, which is an all-time high. The last “pool of record” for Keystone was 756.49 feet, reached in May 1993.
While gauge readings showed surges through the day Tuesday, the inflow remained relatively close to the release rate of 275,000 cubic feet per second, which is why the lake level did not rise significantly, he said.
Williams said he expected the inflow to decrease as the evening wore on and for the lake level to begin to fall. Even with rainfall forecast in the immediate area the next 48 hours, the lake could continue to drop for hours until the new runoff reaches the lake and forces new decisions to be made.
Every inch the lake level falls will buy time, he said.
“Even though you think, ‘What, 6 inches?’ think about how large the reservoir surface is,” he said. “That’s a large volume of water.”
If the lake reaches maximum elevation again, however, the only option with increased inflow would be to release more water downriver. “It’s key whether we have enough volume available for the additional runoff,” Williams said.
If a decision is made to open the gates and release more volume downstream, there would be time to consult with local officials and announce the increase just as other increases have been announced the past several days.
“Literally, every hour we re-evaluate,” he said.
River Parks trail system remained closed Tuesday because it has become dangerous, said Tulsa Police Sgt. Shane Tuell, and police expect people to stay away and not attempt to go around the barricades.
Trespassers would be cited, he said.
“You are risking your life, and at that point, you’re risking the life of a first responder to make sure that you are safe, when you have decided to do something you have been told not to do,” Tuell said.
Bynum announced that the Tulsa Community Foundation and Tulsa Area United Way have established a disaster relief fund. Money raised will go to nonprofits assisting flood and storm victims in eastern Oklahoma. Donations can be made at www.tulsacf.org/2019storms.
Dr. Bruce Dart, executive director of the Tulsa Health Department, warned that people who make contact with floodwater have a greater chance of catching an infectious disease because “floodwater is really made up of sewage.”
“Please don’t eat or drink any material that has come in contact with floodwater,” Dart said.
Dart said the Health Department is offering free tetanus shots to anyone affected by the floods. Information on the vaccine program can be found at www.tulsa-health.org/vaccines.
Bynum met with Gov. Kevin Stitt, Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite, 54th Chief of Engineers and commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Tulsa County Commissioner Karen Keith on Tuesday to discuss the crisis.
Speaking at the afternoon news conference, Keith said she and other local officials continue to work with the Corps on a long-term plan to overhaul the levee system, an effort that has been ongoing for years.
“We hope to break ground in five years,” she said. “So in the meantime, we have to hold this old girl together. This (flooding) is the biggest test of this levee.”
Earlier in the day, the Corps and National Guard worked to stop seepage out of and around concrete walls that link Levees A and B at 65th West Avenue and Charles Page Boulevard.
National Guard helicopters dropped huge sandbags near the levee at 49th West Avenue and Charles Page Boulevard on Monday night.
Update (9:50 a.m. Wednesday): Crosstown Church of Christ shelter is at capacity, according to city of Tulsa officials. Evacuees may go to Faith Church at 1901 W. 171st St. as an alternative.
Emergency shelters and charitable organizations have been tending to the needs of Tulsa-area flooding victims and other residents displaced by evacuations along the city’s maxed-out levees.
Occupancy in two American Red Cross shelters has grown steadily over the last week and by Monday night, 70 people had sheltered inside Crosstown Church of Christ, 3400 E. Admiral Place.
That meant Tuesday was the seventh long day of waiting and worrying for some adults and seemingly endless hours with not much to do for kids.
“These kids are about bored out of their minds,” said Jean Baker, looking from her own two granddaughters to other children nearby.
Baker said she and her granddaughters, Kyra and Makayla, had been there since Wednesday, May 22, when their apartments in far west Tulsa’s Sandy Park were evacuated as a precaution. They weren’t alone.
“There are a lot of people here from Sandy Park. Me and some of my neighbors all set up in this same corner,” she said. “We all knew each other and helped each other before and that has made it easier because you can say: ‘I’m going to take a shower. Can you watch my girls?’”
Her granddaughter Kyra, 7, was styling the tail and mane of a large toy pony “like 887 times,” by her count, as Baker spoke.
As soon as Kyra finished braiding the horse’s blond tail, she pretended to straighten the horse’s brown mane with an unplugged flat iron and applied some real smoothing balm from a squirt bottle.
“I’m not bored. I think it’s fun,” piped up Makayla, 12, as she reclined next to her sister on a cot. “I get to play and run around with my best friend, Jada.”
Baker said the last time Sandy Park’s manager visited the shelter to update residents, there was still no flood water in their homes.
“That was as of yesterday. We have no idea today,” said Baker. “We are hoping for the best but expecting the worst.”
Wade Ramsey had his hands extra full looking after his rambunctious 5-year-old daughter, Linda, because one of her legs is in a cast.
“She broke her leg running down the levee,” Ramsey explained. “Me and my brother were out helping place sandbags on the first levee leak and she’s a daddy’s girl, so I let her come out there with me.”
Being displaced for several days along with his wife and youngest daughter from their home on South 46th West Avenue has been stressful. But Ramsey said when authorities arrived to evacuate them amid rising flood waters a few days ago, he didn’t hesitate.
“If I stayed there being hard-headed, I’m not only endangering her life,” nodding toward a giggling Linda, he said, “but I’m endangering the lives of the people who would have to come in there to get us. I couldn’t see doing that.”
Ramsey’s wife was at her job at Hillcrest Medical Center Tuesday afternoon, so he was on a break from his lawn care business to be on daddy duty at their new, temporary home inside the Crosstown church. That meant passing the time watching Linda flop her restless little body back and forth, back and forth across the family’s adjoined cots, which were adorned with several of her stuffed animals.
Every now and then, he walked Linda outside for a little sunshine and to visit with other evacuees gathered for a quick smoke.
He said their shelter hosts have made a stressful situation as comfortable as possible.
“I’ve been in bad situations before, but this is the first time I’ve been on this side of it instead of doing the helping,” Ramsey said. “The people at this church have been going above and beyond – they’ve cooked meals for us. Chili and salad and cornbread yesterday, and let me tell you, you wouldn’t find better chili anywhere.”
Greeting everyone coming and going from the shelter on Tuesday morning was Crosstown’s 87-year-old deacon, Kenneth Hearrell.
He got his start in this line of volunteer work in Red Cross shelters shortly after Crosstown finished construction of its large activities building in 2005.
“We just opened this building one month before Hurricane Katrina. They asked if we would let them use it as a shelter and we’ve done it several times over the years,” Hearrell said. “Anywhere they need me in the Tulsa area, I’m there. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ That’s why I try to help others. It’s the Golden Rule.”
Some Red Cross volunteers, like Paul Stanbrook, who came all the way to Tulsa from his home near Charlotte, North Carolina, were planning to forgo hotel rooms to spend the night in the emergency shelter on Tuesday because of the possibility of more severe weather overnight.
“We want to be here in case something else happens and more people show up,” he said.
Officials with the American Red Cross Oklahoma region said there is plenty of space available in both Tulsa emergency shelters and volunteers are ready to open additional ones if need be. The second Red Cross shelter is open at Glenpool’s Faith Church, 1901 W. 171st Street South.
Jenks resident Gary Vance was one of only a dozen people there about 5 p.m. Tuesday. He lay on his cot using a small tablet computer to monitor the latest water levels for the Keystone Dam and Heyburn Lake, both of which he thinks are to blame for flooding his home.
It sits on South Ash Street, on five acres nestled between vacant acreage set to become an outlet mall and then the river on the east, the Creek Turnpike to the north, and Polecat Creek to the west.
“I’ve lived there about 30 years and when the Creek Turnpike came in, they fixed it up real good so it wasn’t supposed to flood,” said Vance. “We were high and dry until a bulldozer headed onto that vacant property. I think it must have hit a protective barrier because officers showed up and said one of the bulldozer worker’s vehicles got washed away and we needed to get out.”
He rushed to evacuate on Saturday, taking only a single suitcase and two dogs, which he had to take to a separate shelter for the pets of displaced residents.
The next day he returned for his four cats only to find his home under water and favorite cat Sable in distress in the flood waters.
“I thought the cats would just climb and be OK, but then that storm came through Saturday night. She was trying to get in the house through the doggy door when I found her and she was wet to about here,” he said, motioning to his shoulders. “She was crying and tired. The next day, they called to say she had water in her lungs and she didn’t make it.”
Now, the stress of a flooded home has been compounded by loss and guilt and regret.
“I didn’t worry about the cats but I guess I should have — and I should have stuck with her,” Vance said, as his eyes brimmed with tears. “There never was a sweeter cat.”
For those wanting to support the Red Cross shelters, donations can be made online at redcross.org or by calling 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767).
Though Tulsa County Commission Chairwoman Karen Keith said she did not believe a levee breach was imminent, she reiterated her call for those living near the Arkansas River to proactively evacuate the “fragile” area.
“We’ve had seepage out here for several days now, and we’re really grateful the Corps of Engineers is here as well as the National Guard,” Keith said in an interview near the junction of two levees at 65th West Avenue and Charles Page Boulevard.
“So far, it’s clear,” she said of the water. “We’re not losing dirt or anything like that. We feel like the wall is as secure as it can be.”
However, she cautioned that the situation remains “fragile,” as the levee system in place is more than 70 years old and has been the subject of discussions about safety upgrades for at least a decade.
“We’re making repairs as we go when there are issues,” she said. “I am actually hopeful that this levee is going to make it. But we can’t rely on that. People who live in particular in Lake Station (west of 65th West Avenue) and some of this residential area out here (south of Charles Page Boulevard) ... it’s really time. When you are backed up to that levee, you don’t have any time if something happens.”
Col. Christopher Hussin, the commander of the Tulsa District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the Corps and National Guard have worked extensively to stop seepage out of and around concrete walls where Levees A and B meet. In addition to constant monitoring of the levee area, National Guard personnel placed sandbags and rocks against the walls in the area of 65th West Avenue and Charles Page on Tuesday.
“This is all predicated on the releases that are coming out of Keystone,” Hussin said of the situation. “We’ve been releasing 275,000 cubic feet per second for three or four days now, which is the second-largest release we’ve had on the Keystone. The result of that is you see the level of the water on the inside of the levee here on the (Arkansas) river side continue to rise. And what’s done is put increased pressure on the levee itself.”
National Guard helicopters also worked Monday evening near 49th West Avenue and Charles Page, dropping sandbags in a channel between a levee and a retention pond. The sand, Hussin said, keeps the soil around the levees intact but allows enough water filtration to equalize pressure and stop issues such as sand boils, which occurs when water bursts through the ground behind a levee.
“They’re jumping right on them and they’ve been able to contain everything,” Keith said of the National Guard and the Corps. “I’m really proud of the team. And if this thing makes it through this whole crisis, you know, we have all got a lot to be proud of.”
Jennifer Johnson, who lives near the levee, has been hesitant to leave, but since deputies first visited her residence early last week she has been sending her family members to stay with other relatives.
Johnson’s feelings on whether to stay or go have been varied, as have her neighbors’ feelings. She stayed in her home Monday night without power or water, as she shut off her power as a precaution.
She was leaving Tuesday evening to stay with a relative in midtown Tulsa.
“It just brings tears to my eyes,” Johnson said. “Somewhere that I’ve lived in my whole life and never left, and it’s heartbreaking.
“This is where my momma and daddy raised me.”
The house, she said, was left to her by her parents after they died. She said it is “all we have.” On Tuesday afternoon, Johnson struggled to find plywood and nails to board up her windows.
Her neighbors left their residence Tuesday, also. They had a 26-foot moving truck and planned to head to Colorado.