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Great Raft Race runs its course with a focus on flood victims

A line of Jeeps boasting smiling, costumed passengers and blasting rock music rolled into Case Community Park in Sand Springs on Monday morning just as the pink sun was burning off a lingering fog.

The grass was wet with dew as the Jeepers Anonymous crew stepped out to prepare their “Stranger Things”-themed vessel for launch in Tulsa’s Great Raft Race, but from their rowdy demeanor one could hardly tell it was before 7 a.m. on a holiday.

Jon Schwebach, the president of the club, donned a sailor’s outfit as “Steve Harrington” as he explained the group’s philanthropic roots.

The club garnered sponsors for its third float down river in the fifth event since the race’s revival in 2015, he said, but they funded a cause greater than the race: Victims of the historic flooding in May.

The club’s rafting crew has a history of helping the community, Schwebach said, having supported another cause the past two years, but this year the flooding affected some of its own.

“The river took so much from these people,” Schwebach said.

Schwebach said one of the members affected, Chuck Graham, lost his house in the Sand Springs Town and Country neighborhood. Another crew member said Graham doesn’t like to ask for much, but his house was up to its roof in water.

Graham was in high spirits aboard the raft as “Jim Hopper,” bearing shaved legs for his costume’s short-shorts, and he said he was better off than others in his neighborhood. His house was insured, so he’s more focused on making sure others get the help they need, he said.

Schwebach said that through sponsors, the club was able to give $450 each to five families affected by the floods.

“It’s not much,” he said, “but it helps.”

Similarly, Event Director Seth Erkenbeck said some of the money raised through this year’s race benefited the parks the event depends on, both of which sustained damage in the floods. About $1,500 was donated to Case Community Park in Sand Springs and River West Festival Park in Tulsa, he said.

The Jeepers Anonymous crew won first place in the competitive homemade raft category last year, and though they don’t actually compete against them, they named KKT Architects as their greatest motivator.

The corporate crew set the record last year for the fastest float downriver at about 1½ hours. Most rafts take anywhere from 2 to 5 hours to make it to the Finish Line Festival at River West.

Chris Hougland, a member of the KKT crew, said they opted this year to build a new raft that was “bigger and better” than but still similar to the design they won with in 2018.

The new “Mad Max”-themed vessel had eight seats for paddlers to turn two paddlewheels, one of which reached higher than 7 feet, and a fiberglass base instead of foam.

Hougland said he was a little worried that the raft was going to be too heavy with necessities, like beer and water balloons, but he was hoping for success.

Rider Wanas Jasim said she woke up at 4:30 a.m. to get into her costume as “Aunty Entity.” July marked her first year at the architecture firm, and she was recruited for the crew after she cheered on the team last year, she said.

Thousands were expected to visit the Finish Line Festival, and River West Festival Park opened at 10:30 a.m. to allow attendees to line the banks and await the arrival of the rafts.

Hundreds were present when the top finishers were announced at the main stage about noon.

In the competitive corporate category, KKT Architects claimed victory with a time of 1 hour and 28 minutes, and Jeepers Anonymous came in first in the homemade competitive category with a time about 20 minutes longer; 1 hour and 52 minutes.

The announcements were met with whoops and hollers, and members of the Jeepers Anonymous crew attributed their time to quick river flow and the consolidation of beer to one cooler.

While receiving a wooden paddle plaque on stage, Schwebach thanked Event Director Seth Erkenbeck for bringing the tradition of the race back to Tulsa.

The original raft race ran from 1973 to 1991, and at one point broke the state record for being the largest single-day event in state history with 600 rafts carrying 4,500 racers floating down the river while 150,000 people watched. Organizers eventually canceled the event because of a lack of participation.

Erkenbeck and a group of rafting enthusiasts brought the event back to life in 2015, and he said Monday 500 to 600 people were on the river on more than 125 rafts. He estimated about 10,000 people attended the free Finish Line Festival throughout the day.

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Hurricane Dorian triggers massive flooding in Bahamas; at least 5 dead

NASSAU, Bahamas — Hurricane Dorian unleashed massive flooding across the Bahamas on Monday, pummeling the islands with so much wind and water that authorities urged people to find flotation devices and grab hammers to break out of their attics if necessary. At least five deaths have been blamed on the storm.

“We are in the midst of a historic tragedy,” Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said in announcing the fatalities. He called the devastation “unprecedented and extensive.”

The fearsome Category 4 storm slowed almost to a standstill as it shredded roofs, hurled cars and forced even rescue crews to take shelter until the onslaught passed.

Officials said they received a “tremendous” number of calls from people in flooded homes. A radio station received more than 2,000 distress messages, including reports of a 5-month-old baby stranded on a roof and a woman with six grandchildren who cut a hole in a roof to escape rising floodwaters. Other reports involved a group of eight children and five adults stranded on a highway and two storm shelters that flooded.

The deaths in the Bahamas came after a previous storm-related death in Puerto Rico. At least 21 people were hurt in the Bahamas and evacuated by helicopters, the prime minster said.

Police Chief Samuel Butler urged people to remain calm and share their GPS coordinates, but he said rescue crews had to wait until weather conditions improved. “We simply cannot get to you,” he said on Bahamas radio station ZNS.

Forecasters warned that Dorian could generate a storm surge as high as 23 feet.

Meanwhile in the United States, the National Hurricane Center extended watches and warnings across the Florida and Georgia coasts. Forecasters expected Dorian to stay offshore, but meteorologist Daniel Brown cautioned that “only a small deviation” could draw the storm’s dangerous core toward land.

By 8 p.m. EDT Monday, the storm’s top sustained winds had fallen to 140 mph, still within Category 4 range. It was virtually stationary, centered just 25 miles northeast of Freeport. Hurricane-force winds extended outward as far as 45 miles from the center

The water reached roofs and the tops of palm trees. One woman filmed water lapping at the stairs of her home’s second floor.

In Freeport, Dave Mackey recorded video showing water and floating debris surging around his house as the wind shrieked outside.

“Our house is 15 feet up, and right now where that water is is about 8 feet. So we’re pretty concerned right now because we’re not at high tide,” said Mackey, who shared the video with The Associated Press. “Our garage door has already come off. … Once we come out of it with our lives, we’re happy.”

On Sunday, Dorian had churned over Abaco Island with battering winds and surf and heavy flooding.

Parliament member Darren Henfield described the damage as “catastrophic” and said officials did not have information on what happened on nearby cays. “We are in search-and-recovery mode. … Continue to pray for us.”

A spokesman for Bahamas Power and Light told ZNS that there was a blackout in New Providence, the archipelago’s most populous island. He said the company’s office on Abaco island was flattened.

“The reports out of Abaco, as everyone knows,” spokesman Quincy Parker said, pausing for a deep sigh, “were not good.”

Most people went to shelters as the storm neared. Tourist hotels shut down, and residents boarded up their homes. Many people were expected to be left homeless.

On Sunday, Dorian’s maximum sustained winds reached 185 mph, with gusts up to 220 mph, tying the record for the most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever to make landfall. That equaled the Labor Day hurricane of 1935, before storms were named. The only recorded storm that was more powerful was Hurricane Allen in 1980, with 190 mph winds, though it did not make landfall at that strength.

The Bahamas archipelago is no stranger to hurricanes. Homes are required to have metal reinforcements for roof beams to withstand winds into the upper limits of a Category 4 hurricane, and compliance is generally tight for those who can afford it. Risks are higher in poorer neighborhoods that have wooden homes in low-lying areas.

Dorian was likely to begin pulling away from the Bahamas early Tuesday and curving to the northeast parallel to the southeastern coast of the U.S. The system is expected to spin 40 to 50 miles off Florida, with hurricane-force wind speeds extending about 35 miles to the west.

An advisory from the hurricane center warned that Florida’s east-central coast could see a brief tornado sometime Monday afternoon or evening.

A mandatory evacuation of the entire South Carolina coast took effect Monday, covering about 830,000 people.

Transportation officials made all lanes of Interstate 26 from Charleston head inland earlier than planned after noticing traffic jams from evacuees and vacationers heading home on Labor Day, Gov. Henry McMaster said.

“We can’t make everybody happy, but we believe we can keep everyone alive,” the governor said.

A few hours later, Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, ordered mandatory evacuations for that state’s Atlantic coast, also starting at midday Monday.

Authorities in Florida ordered mandatory evacuations in some vulnerable coastal areas. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper warned his state that it could see heavy rain, winds and floods later in the week.

A hurricane watch was in effect for Florida’s East Coast from Deerfield Beach north to South Santee River in South Carolina. A storm surge watch was extended northward to South Santee River in South Carolina. Lake Okeechobee was under a tropical storm watch.

A National Guard official, John Anderson, said many people were complying with the evacuation orders.

“We have not seen much resistance at all,” he said in a phone call with reporters. People do understand that Dorian is nothing to mess around with.”

Floods reveal treasures, but is it OK to pick up that artifact and take it home?

Every Oklahoma kid who ever found an arrowhead lying on freshly plowed ground after a heavy rain knows that floods reveal treasures. But when they pick up that arrowhead are they breaking the law?

Much of the most recently churned-up land in Oklahoma lies on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property, and the Corps created a minor stir among collectors last week when it issued a reminder about the removal of points and fossils.

“Officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Tulsa District would like to remind everyone that it is against the law to remove artifacts from public lands,” the notice stated. It further encouraged visitors to notify officials if they see someone collecting illegally.

Responses to the notice on social media ranged from “thanks for the heads-up,” to objections and some sarcastic comments from longtime local arrowhead and fossil hunters.

As organizer Donny Replogle prepared for the 15th Annual Indian Nations Artifact and Fossil Show held at the Mabee Center on Saturday, he displayed dozens of items he’d collected primarily from the Arkansas, Canadian and Verdigris river bottoms since he was a child.

He had hundreds of “points” — a more accurate term than “arrowhead” because most pre-date bows and arrows. He also had musk ox skulls, brown bear skulls, as well as ancient bison, mammoth and mastodon teeth and bones found in the Arkansas River near Tulsa.

Local artifact hunters agree he has one of the largest local collections. He has some truly valuable treasures and has portable displays he takes to schools for educational presentations.

He has collected since 1974, and he guffawed at the notice issued by the Corps.

“Have you actually read through the 1979 act?” he said. “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.”

Law enforcement officers have approached him on the rivers several times, he said.

“They can say all they want. I’ve had a lot of them come through over the years blowing smoke, but there’s nothing they can do about it,” he said. “The 1979 Act protects what we’re doing. (President) Jimmy Carter made sure of that. He was a collector.”

Some confusion centers on land ownership and management where some of the most popular artifacts are found and a portion of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, according to Cindy Thomas, archaeologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Tulsa District.

Title 36 of the United States Code of Federal Regulations also comes into play as it addresses destruction of federal property, she said.

“There is a common misconception about a section of ARPA in the Uniform Regulations where it has some exceptions about picking them up as long as they are on the ground surface,” she said.

“A lot of people think if they see an arrowhead lying on the surface of the ground, they can pick it up if they take it home and put in a private collection,” she said.

People can pick up artifacts on Corps property, but they can’t take it with them. Better to document it with a photograph, mark it with GPS and share the information with an archaeology group, she said.

“You can’t just willy-nilly go onto public lands and pick up artifacts, because it does damage the resource.”

She encourages newcomers to the activity to connect with a group like the Oklahoma Public Archaeology Network, which offers training sessions and has a Facebook page.

Jeff Knack, Tulsa District chief of natural resources and recreation, said the notice was information intended to inform the public looking forward and shouldn’t be a worry for longtime collectors.

“This is more of a public information campaign instead of a law enforcement campaign,” he said.

Confusion centers on definitions of what’s collected, where it’s found, and who actually owns the property. Experts advise that anyone who is unsure should first go with an expert or at least ask questions before collecting.

Burial sites, Native American lands, commercial developments, all come with their own sets of specific state and federal rules. With the exception of burial sites and other sites of historic importance, what’s found on privately owned land, typically, is the property of the landowner, experts agreed.

Commercial and public infrastructure developments and mining operations also involve an entirely different set of required permitting and archaeological reviews. Folks floating and walking the rivers, however, are another matter.

The land under navigable waterways is considered public land under Oklahoma state law, even if many landowners argue that their property rights extend to the middle of the river.

“That’s been an argument forever,” said Replogle, who does much of his collecting from a kayak or with landowner permission.

The Corps has responsibility for managing the water but does not own the land under the rivers with the exception of designated Corps land, most of which is associated with the lakes. Still, land under the navigable waterways is “public land.”

Bill Breckinridge, a local collector and technical archaeologist who authenticates points and fossils and curates collections for museums, said the point of the 1979 act is “to protect archaeological resources, not alluvial finds.”

Items washed down a river are no longer associated with an archaeological site and will only be lost as they are further washed away, eroded or destroyed in some other way if not recovered, he said.

“I curated a collection donated to the city of Sand Springs, all of which was picked up below the dam on Keystone by one person, so let’s just get realistic here,” he said.

“The Canadian below Eufaula and the Arkansas below Keystone and Kaw are world-class sources of ancient artifacts, things that could never be excavated and revealed,” he said. “These were highways for travel thousands of years ago. It has driven a few people crazy with greed, but it has also given people an incredible window into the past.”