Vice President Mike Pence and a retinue of federal and state officials spoke to volunteers and visited flood victims in west Tulsa County on Tuesday to assure them the Trump administration is on the ball.
“We are with you,” Pence said during a stop at the Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma. “And we’re going to stay with you until we rebuild bigger and better than before.”
Pence said much the same thing a little later in the Town and Country neighborhood, which was inundated last week by floodwaters released from the Keystone Dam.
“We’re here because we wanted to emphasize that help is on the way,” Pence said. “Resources are available.”
The Trump administration has taken criticism over the past two years for its handling of some natural disasters, most notably the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
Tuesday, Pence arrived with the nation’s top disaster response brass in tow and the message that money is already arriving in Tulsa County in the form of individual assistance.
In addition to his wife, Karen, Pence was accompanied by Gov. Kevin Stitt and wife Sarah Stitt, Congressmen Kevin Hern and Markwayne Mullin, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan and Acting Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Pete Gaynor, among others. The federal contingent actually arrived at Tulsa International Airport in two planes, Air Force Two and a Coast Guard jet.
Proceeding by motorcade, the group first visited the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, where Pence greeted volunteers and tried his hand at packing one of the boxes distributed to disaster victims.
After a brief address and posing for photos, the motorcade proceeded to Town and Country, where Pence spent a little over an hour talking to residents.
Hern said it was important for the vice president to see the situation first hand — and to be seen.
“People think Washington, D.C., is disconnected from the rest of the country,” Hern said. “This is a connection we’re trying to make. It’s important for the administration to be here, to hear these stories, and not just here but all across the country.”
Pence spent some time talking with Kristi Hill as she stood next to a mound of ruined drywall, furnishings and appliances dragged from her house.
“I’m not all that political,” Hill said afterward, “but this does mean a lot for him to be here, and especially for our representatives to be here.”
Hern said it is unusual to arrange such a trip on such short notice, especially because the vice president would be venturing into open access areas such as the Town and Country neighborhood.
County Commissioner Karen Keith, whose district includes the unincorporated addition on the south bank of the Arkansas River, introduced the Pences to a half-dozen or so residents.
It was not immediately clear how much individual assistance flood victims will be available. According to one source, the amount is limited to $4,000 per household.
Gaynor, the acting FEMA administrator, said about 500 Tulsa County residents had already been registered with the agency and about $50,000 in aid had been approved.
Pence and others praised the initiative of residents, family members and volunteers who began cleaning up debris as soon as practical.
“FEMA has been impressed with how proactive the people have been,” said Bynum. “They said some places they don’t see that.”
“Karen (Pence) and I wanted to be here to tell you the federal government will help you rebuild,” Pence said. “But we also wanted to express our admiration.”
WEBBERS FALLS — Something wet seeped through Rick Shelby’s boots.
Maybe it was water; maybe it was muck. Regardless, he took a break from cleaning out the First Baptist Church in Webbers Falls to go to the town’s City Hall, where the Muskogee County Health Department was giving tetanus shots.
“We’re just kind of helping ourselves until help arrives,” Shelby said. “Everything we can get done here first gets volunteers out to help others sooner.”
Several volunteer groups have either arrived or are coming to town to assist with the cleanup from a flood that enveloped the town. Shelby, chairman of the deacons at the First Baptist Church, said one of the relief teams said the church was their first priority.
Officials said 160 of the town’s roughly 200 houses were damaged in the flood, which also destroyed the town’s water main. Mayor Sandy Wright said Tuesday that a temporary line has been run from a nearby community.
She said everyone evacuated from the town and that there were no reported flood-related injuries or deaths in the Webbers Falls area.
The Arkansas River at Muskogee, upstream from Webbers Falls, flooded to about 45 feet from May 24 to May 31 before water began to significantly recede. The flood stage there is 28 feet. The river was at roughly 46 feet for three days, May 25-27.
In Webbers Falls, about 2 feet of water flooded the First Baptist Church, reaching countless items — including the piano — thought to have been stacked high enough to avoid being soaked.
Sunday was the first day for many residents to return since they evacuated around May 20. As they went to the church to see what weeks of floodwater had left behind, Shelby warned visitors that the muck-covered floor was as “slick as glass.”
Floodwaters reached only about 6 inches in John Smithson II’s home, but after sitting there for two weeks, the water had significantly warped and buckled the home’s floors. Mold was growing inside, he said.
He spent Tuesday salvaging what he could.
“I don’t know how long it’ll take to find out on FEMA or insurance or where I’ll relocate, but I have my health, and I give God credit for that,” Smithson said.
He also took a break from cleaning to get a tetanus shot.
Sen. Mark Allen, who represents Sequoyah and LeFlore counties, was among a contingent of public officials who toured the Webbers Falls disaster area. Allen said he came to inspect agricultural damage.
From the “Arkansas state line back to Kerr Lock and Dam (on the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System) — the farmers in that area right there, … they are totally destroyed for a year,” he said.
Allen said he met one farmer in the region who employs 50 people and will not have the money to pay them.
“There’s crops that have been wiped out,” Allen said. “The wheat they were getting ready to harvest — that’s gone.”
Emergency management personnel found that in Tulsa, Muskogee and Wagoner counties, more than 913 homes were damaged. Of those, 335 were destroyed and 517 others sustained major damage, the state reported.
President Donald Trump declared a disaster in Oklahoma on Saturday, making federal assistance available to those counties. A FEMA trailer was set up in Webbers Falls to assist residents in accessing that assistance.
Linda Pollard, a Webbers Falls resident, had low expectations for federal assistance. She said she was told her home, where she had lived for more than 40 years, was a total loss. She spent part of Tuesday resting with a friend under an umbrella while volunteers helped haul unsalvageable possessions out.
“I’m fine,” she said. “I’m not supposed to cry, so I’m just fine.”
While taking inventory when she got back to her home, Pollard said she has “barely some personal stuff.” She has, as far as possessions, only what she took before the flood.
“I do have one miracle,” Pollard said. “I have one tame rabbit in the backyard. He survived the whole thing.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has begun a safety modification study of Keystone Dam that could lead to an increase in the dam’s capacity, an official with the agency said Tuesday.
The study, which was the subject of a public meeting in Sand Springs in February, is part of a nationwide review of the Corps’ 650 dams initiated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
David Williams, chief of hydrology and hydraulic engineering for the Corps’ Tulsa District, said the objective of the study is to determine what modifications would be needed to ensure that the dam could capture a significantly larger storm than it is currently designed to hold.
“The Corps of Engineers has taken a risk-based approach,” Williams said. “The Corps is not comfortable with the risk associated with the potential over-topping of the dams — no matter how small it is. Again, this (the risk) is very, very low.”
Keystone Dam was designed to handle the water from a 1943 storm, Williams said, but design methodology has changed since then, leaving the dam with a hydrologic deficiency, “but only at these really extreme probabilities.”
He added that “it is really important for people to understand the dam is not at risk of failing.”
The goal, Williams said, is to modify the dam to “just completely eliminate” the risk that water could overflow the dam during a storm. But it would result in no operational changes to the dam, including the elevation of the flood pool.
“What you are talking about is the gigantic storm that is routed (by the Corps) on top of the flood pool,” Williams said. “So that flood pool that we had for the last two weeks, when we fill Keystone, we actually route the gigantic storm on top of that full flood pool, and now that is what is the design storm for the dam.”
Joe Kralicek, executive director of the Tulsa Area Emergency Management Agency, called the idea of increasing Keystone Dam’s flood pool capacity — and its outflow capacity — shortsighted and irresponsible unless the Corps takes steps to mitigate the downstream effects of larger releases.
“Sometimes I think they (the Corps) are so busy looking at their dam system that they don’t necessarily consider the mitigation of their decisions regarding the dam system,” Kralicek said.
Local residents saw what kind of devastation last week’s release of 275,000 cubic feet of water per second delivered, Kralicek said, so “imagine the amount of devastation we will get if they ever had to release huge amounts.”
He added: “It is a federally managed waterway, and the feds need to step up and help mitigate any potential impact.”
But Williams insisted that the intent is not to increase outflows from Keystone Dam, though he acknowledged that a larger outflow could result if the dam’s capacity is increased.
“No, the emphasis of the study has been looking at potential modifications to the dam to capture that design storm,” Williams said. “The whole point of the modification would be to hold that design storm and not appreciably increase flows downstream.”
He also noted that Keystone Dam would have benefited from a larger capacity during the recent flooding and that as part of the safety modification study, the Corps is looking at improvements to the downstream warning system.
Keystone Dam has the capacity to release a maximum of 939,000 cfs. In 1986 — the 100-year storm of record — the Corps released 307,000 cfs. Outflow from the dam peaked at 275,000 cfs during last week’s flooding.
The top of the Lake Keystone flood pool is 754 feet, with the top of the surcharge pool at 757 feet.
Williams said the Corps has yet to determine whether — and to what extent — the dam elevation might increase, but it “is sufficient to say that if that were the selected alternative, it would be some additional height to fully capture that volume.”
There is also the possibility that nothing comes of the study, Williams said.
“Ultimately, the modification study may be just that — it may be a study; there may not be any actual modification of the dam,” he said. “So you have to keep that in mind.”
Actor Jason Lee talks about his new photo exhibit that is being shown at the same time as photos from Larry Clark's iconic photo book "Tulsa."
The final safety modification study report is expected to be completed in January 2020.