Oklahomans can expect a years-long recovery from a flood that was expected to peak in the Tulsa area — at least for now — around 4 a.m. Friday.
Water levels on the Arkansas River continued to rise downstream as the water released from Keystone Lake was increased to 250,000 cubic feet per second. That flow rate, provided further precipitation does not fall, should persist throughout the weekend, officials said.
Watch a 10 a.m. Friday news conference:
“We’re looking at probably a multiyear process for recovery from a disaster this size,” said Joe Kralicek, director of the Tulsa Area Emergency Management Agency.
Gov. Kevin Stitt said he expected the Arkansas River in the Tulsa area “to possibly peak sometime around 4 a.m. (from the 250,000 cfs release), but it’s going to remain high for the next several days.” If water is later released from the Keystone Dam at a greater rate, the flooding would increase, he indicated.
David Williams, chief of hydrology and hydraulic engineering for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Tulsa District, said water levels should stabilize if the Corps can keep the release from Keystone Dam steady through Memorial Day weekend.
Williams said the dam was designed to handle heavy water flow and isn’t at risk of failure. The river is forecast to rise to 23 feet, within major flood stage and 2 feet shy of the high reached in October 1986, the last time the dam had this large a release.
The plans hinge on future storms both in the Tulsa area and upstream, but Williams said that if the rain is far enough upstream, it won’t affect plans here.
“Eventually that volume will come into Keystone,” Williams said. “What would impact us at this point is if we had very heavy rainfall very quickly close to the dam, because we’re so tight with what’s coming in, what’s going out and where our storage is. We’ll have to deal with that runoff, but that is not directly tying into what’s going on today with the release.”
Stitt said “the full impact” of the flooding might not be known until next week.
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum urged residents living in areas that might be affected to have evacuation preparations — escape routes planned, places to stay arranged and bags packed — ready before a recommendation to evacuate is given.
The city launched a website, cityoftulsa.org/rivermaps, to provide flooding estimates and historic maps to help residents make decisions regarding evacuation.
Kralicek said Thursday that the Candlestick Beach neighborhood and other areas south of Wekiwa Road on the north side of the Arkansas River east of the Keystone Dam and, on the south side of the river in west Sand Springs, the Town and Country and Meadow Valley neighborhoods and the area around the Tulsa Boys’ Home were likely seeing high water.
The following communities were likely to be affected by the rising waters soon: Garden City and Cherry Hill in west Tulsa and Wind River and areas south of 121st Street from the river to Sheridan Road in south Tulsa; and areas of Jenks, Bixby and southern Broken Arrow.
Backflow, also known as back flooding, is also possible in various creeks and streams that flow into the river, and street closures along the river are likely. Riverside Drive began flooding near downtown Tulsa on Thursday.
Emergency responders urged vigilance and for people to prepare to evacuate. In some instances, an escape route might flood before a house does.
Gov. Kevin Stitt said dozens of highways throughout the state have been closed because of flooding and that at least 1,000 homes had been affected so far.
“The only way a tragedy happens from this flooding situation is if someone loses their life,” Bynum said. “Property damage can be covered by insurance; property damage is something that comes down to dollars and cents that can be paid for.
“You can never replace a human life if it is lost.”
Bynum said “the only way” a life is lost in a flood is if people are not prepared to evacuate and not ready to follow the recommendations to evacuate.
He said there would be no forced evacuations. However, power will be cut to neighborhoods that are subject to evacuation.
During evacuations, emergency responders — who will be uniformed and in marked vehicles with active emergency lights — will patrol the affected neighborhoods, making announcements.
Bynum said those responders will go door-to-door to inform residents that they have only a few hours to leave.
Tulsa police have been patrolling at-risk neighborhoods, and Bynum said that will be the procedure for other neighborhoods faced with evacuation. Neighborhoods that are evacuated will have guards posted at their entrances, Bynum said. The only people allowed in will be those with identification proving they live in the neighborhood.
Tulsa Fire Department spokesman Andy Little spoke of the risks of flood waters, which can be swift and filled with debris and can sweep away even a strong swimmer.
“We’ve seen people playing in the water, with children,” Little said. “It’s a very, very dangerous situation. Please stay out of the water.”
The Army Corps of Engineers announced that flow from the dam increased from 207,000 cubic feet per second overnight to 250,000 cfs around noon Thursday. The higher flow rate, expected to remain in place through Sunday, came after storms dumped more rain on northeastern and central Oklahoma on Wednesday, pushing inflow to the lake past 300,000 cfs.
The levees along the Arkansas River in Tulsa are holding, with minor problems, and remain under constant surveillance as the greater flow of water presses against them, County Commissioner Karen Keith said.
“As the water sits on the levees, the longer that duration, the more risk we have for failures,” Keith said. “We are amping up all eyes on the levee to make sure if we have any issues we’re on it immediately.”
Recovery from the floods, not yet the primary focus of responders, will begin with damage assessments, Kralicek said.
“Once the water begins to go down, we will have multiple crews out canvasing the community, looking at where the damage is, where the water has gone, taking photographs, documenting everything,” Kralicek said.
Local officials will work with state and federal partners to create a preliminary damage assessment. Local officials hope for a federal disaster declaration, but at the moment, Kralicek said, they have been laser-focused on the more immediate threats posed by the flood.
SAND SPRINGS — Alex Gutierrez’s mobile home was one of only three left standing in the aftermath of the March 2015 tornado that hit the River Oaks community.
But he said the rain-swollen Arkansas River proved itself a greater danger to the place he’s called home for the past seven years.
“Everybody’s losing everything,” Gutierrez said as Tulsa County sheriff’s deputies evacuated his block and the adjacent Town and Country subdivision near Oklahoma 51 at 145th West Avenue. “I just got my couches and my TVs and my animals and my clothes, because everything else is gone.”
Sustained heavy rainfall across northeastern Oklahoma prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to increase the flow of water from the Keystone Dam to 250,000 cubic feet per second on Thursday. The Arkansas River is projected to rise to 23 feet, 2 feet below the high reached during the record-breaking October 1986 flood.
The dam released water earlier this week at a rate of 160,000 cfs, implementing gradual increases as Keystone Lake continued to fill with rain. As of 7 p.m. Thursday, the reservoir had inflows exceeding 315,000 cfs.
Authorities began giving notice as early as Tuesday morning to those living near the Arkansas River or in a 100-year floodplain about the possibility of severe damage related to heavy downstream flows.
Sand Springs police officers on Thursday controlled entry into the Meadow Valley neighborhood. They noted that rising waters there already covered streets, sidewalks, driveways and cars — all with no sign of receding by the weekend.
“We thought it would maybe just cover the cul-de-sac and then (the water) would go down and we’d be good,” said Mike Lyons, a Meadow Valley resident who evacuated with his wife, Amanda, and their family. Officers knocked on doors there earlier in the week and encouraged people to leave before the flooding started.
“But now they’re telling us we’re going to have to be out for a week, and our hands are tied,” Lyons said.
Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado was among those who stopped by the Town and Country neighborhood to give residents a final push to escape. He even helped Gutierrez and another volunteer recover a man’s goats.
By the time he went to visit other flood-prone communities, the floodwater had passed the intersection of 19th Street and 145th West Avenue and could be seen starting to enter homes there.
Regalado said the area “has obviously been inundated” with water and stressed the importance of clearing the area before the situation becomes life-threatening.
“We’ll continue those efforts until we’re satisfied that people are safe in these neighborhoods,” he said.
While Sand Springs authorities did not force anyone to evacuate, they told residents the neighborhood would become impassable and would not have power until the water subsides due to the risk of electrical fires.
Sand Springs police announced the closure of Oklahoma 51 around the Meadow Valley area on Thursday evening, saying that “water has overtaken the roadway, and it is not safe for travel.”
“When they said there would be flooding, I expected just a street flood, not all the way past the sidewalk and up,” said Chase Burgoon, who lives in Meadow Valley with his girlfriend, Sierra Cooper, and her family. The couple are staying with a family member in Mannford and returned Thursday morning to pick up clothes.
When they arrived, the flood water was about to cover the address numbers on the mailbox. Burgoon ended up hopping a fence in order to leave the street without risking entering the water.
“We had to stay in a motel last night and came back around 5 o’clock this morning, and the water was about four houses away,” Baylee Metcalfe, another Meadow Valley resident, said.
“It’s pretty hard. With our (four) dogs and two cats, no one really wants to take a whole bunch of animals in. That was the main issue of why we weren’t originally going to leave. But now we have to leave. We weren’t so worried about all of our stuff, just our animals and making sure they’re taken care of,” Metcalfe said.
The Lyonses were able to get their children and pets to safety before taking whatever belongings they could carry to the Crosstown Church of Christ in Tulsa, where the American Red Cross is assisting those displaced by tornadoes and floods. The church was the first place the couple have been able to clean themselves up since being told their home would likely be flooded.
“Our minds are just rambling. It’s just hard to understand this whole thing,” Mike Lyons said. “But I think Sand Springs did an awesome job coming out and letting everybody know two days ahead of time that this was going to take place.”
Gutierrez said he is staying with a friend for the time being and noted that he was already supposed to be at a campsite at the Rocklahoma music festival in Pryor, which he has attended for seven years.
“It’s a tradition,” he said. But a minute later he decided: “Rocklahoma isn’t as important as my house. I’m just thankful for being alive and breathing today.”