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Update: New Keystone Dam releases could mean more flooding, increased water levels for days

Update (6:30 a.m. May 31): The Keystone Dam output has been reduced to 200,000 cubic feet per second as of 6 a.m., with an inflow estimate of 182,000 cfs. The inflow has dropped about 13.5% since midnight, according to the Army Corps of Engineers' website.

Read more: All eyes are on the levee system as water flow from Keystone Dam continues to decrease

10 A.M. UPDATE: The output from the Keystone Dam rose to 275,000 cubic feet per second at 7 a.m. Monday, with that additional outflow already reaching western Tulsa County, according to the City of Tulsa.

That flow is expected to be felt around noon in central Tulsa and later this afternoon in south Tulsa County. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expects to continue discharging 275,000 cfs through Thursday.

"Currently, the Keystone Dam and the Tulsa County levees are working as they should and there have been no levee breaches at this time," according to a statement from the city. "With the additional volume of water being discharged through the levee system, officials continue to monitor this situation."

Tulsa finds itself in an uncertain and unusual situation Monday morning.

Memorial Day weekend typically signals the start of pool season, with families and friends also flocking to bodies of water much larger than a pool to enjoy the holiday. For many people adversely affected by flooding, they've already seen enough water.

But the Arkansas River in Tulsa continues to rise, and severe storms are forecast for the area on Tuesday.

The Arkansas River level in Tulsa has crept up to 22.37 feet as of 8:30 a.m., with the latest floodwater projected to reach a height of 23 feet on Monday, according to the National Weather Service's Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service.

The weather forecast isn't helping assuage concerns, either. Any significant additional rainfall in the Keystone basin is a potential prompt for another increase in its floodwater output.

NWS meteorologists predict "scattered to numerous showers and thunderstorms" Tuesday across eastern Oklahoma and northwest Arkansas as a strong upper level system moves into the central plains.

The "enhanced risk" for storms is to the north and west of Interstate 44. There is considered to be a "slight risk" below I-44.

"All modes of severe weather will be possible, and heavy rainfall will likely result in additional flooding concerns," the NWS stated in an early Monday weather update.

Below the version of this story published in Monday's newspaper.

Another long night of storms and rain drove home the realization Sunday that Tulsa is in for a long battle with water levels that won’t recede for days and still might rise.

Floodwater releases at Keystone Dam increased to 265,000 cubic feet per second at 7 p.m. Sunday and were set to rise to 275,000 by 7 a.m. Monday, according to the Tulsa District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Arkansas River level at Tulsa was forecast to inch ever closer to the high water mark of 25 feet set in 1984, with a crest of 23.7 feet forecast for late Monday afternoon.

Keystone Lake is at 110% of its available flood pool and well into a 3-foot “surcharge” allowance. If allowed to rise higher, the water could spill over the dam’s gates and create an even more hazardous situation, according to David Williams, Tulsa District chief of hydrology and hydraulics engineering section.

“Whenever the gates become inoperable, then you lose the ability to control those releases,” Williams said. “Then all of a sudden, instead of 250,000 coming through town, what if we have 450,000 coming through town. That you don’t want.”

The Corps had planned to keep levels at 255,000 cfs through Thursday, but rainfall of 1 to 2.5 inches across the region with a storm that brought straight-line winds and a possible tornado through Tulsa ultimately dashed that plan.

More rain is in the forecast, as well. While the National Weather Service called for a sunny Memorial Day holiday, it posted warnings for more storms and widespread rain Tuesday.

The 275,000 cfs rate will continue through Thursday, barring any significant change, Williams said at a Sunday news conference. The decision to increase flow doesn’t take into account any rain in the forecast, only the rain that has already fallen and run off, he said.

The current release could mean another foot of water in the homes west of Tulsa that are already flooded, County Commissioner Karen Keith said.

“If you’re behind that levee, please heed all warnings and prepare to evacuate,” Keith said. “Because you have very little time if we do have a major issue over there.”

The expected duration of the high water and new increased flow raised concerns among local officials.

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said erosion and sinkholes continued to worsen in Tulsa River Parks on the east bank of the river, and the park was closed between 11th and 96th streets Sunday.

“Trees in River Parks have also started to fall due to erosion of the soil under them. It is not a safe place for people to be during this event,” Bynum noted.

He also urged concerned residents to evacuate, saying they should be prepared for “the flood of record” but hope for the best.

The amount of time water has been on the levees and the potential for higher water levels are concerns for Todd Kilpatrick, Levee District 12 commissioner for Tulsa County.

“We are holding at the status quo, and with help from the National Guard, we’ve got more monitoring and it’s running as smooth as we can expect,” he said Sunday. “We’re just hoping we don’t see an increase in the volume of water in the river. ... The longer the duration of the water on the levees, the more your failure rate goes up, as well, so that can get you as well as the higher water can.”

Flooding is even more severe at Muskogee, where the Verdigris and Grand rivers flow into the Arkansas. The river is forecast now to crest at 46.5 feet, just 1.7 feet shy of the 48.2-foot record.

“Unregulated runoff” entering the lake from local tributaries and the Cimarron River pushed up the need for a release, Williams said.

The Corps’ gauge in the Cimarron at Ripley showed an increase from 25,000 cfs Saturday to 75,000 cfs Sunday.

Williams said hydrologists are looking ahead to a change to a “summertime weather pattern” by mid-week. “It’s all based on timing, and it’s a delicate balance,” he said. “We need to get through the next two or three days.”

Six northeast Oklahoma reservoirs now are at or above the top of their flood pool level, and three more are at 95% or higher. Several Tulsa District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes in Oklahoma and Kansas have topped “pool of record” heights, said district spokesman Preston Chasteen. It will take time to drain those reservoirs, especially if rain events refill them time and again.

“Right now, on our current path, we expect the river to be back within its banks at Muskogee around June 8, barring any additional significant weather,” he said.

The record lake levels follow record-setting rainfall, said Gary McManus, state climatologist with the Oklahoma State Climatological Survey. North central and northeast Oklahoma are in their wettest 30-day period on record, he said.

To further illustrate the point, he broke it down for the calendar month. The north-central region is posting its wettest May on record through the first 26 days, while the northeast is in its second-wettest May, but those records were set decades apart — not in both regions at the same time.

“Across southern Kansas, they had even more rain in places than we’ve had,” he said.

In the northern Oklahoma regions, some localized areas have seen 15 to 25 inches this month, while in Kansas, some areas have had 20 to 30 inches, he said.

“All of that has to flow through the state to get to the Gulf of Mexico,” he said. “It’s not just what falls on us, it’s what falls north of us.”

Record rainfall and reservoir levels have the Arkansas River experiencing bank-side erosion, and concerns are growing for the levee system that protects Sand Springs and west Tulsa neighborhoods.

“Mother Nature has not been kind here across the Tulsa District in Oklahoma and Kansas,” Chasteen said, noting the sheer volume of rainfall. “From a historical perspective, we have hit pool of record, which is the highest water has risen, at several lakes.”

Record setters the past week include Oologah and three Kansas lakes upstream in the Verdigris Basin, including the Toronto, Fall River and Elk City lakes. Skiatook and Birch lakes, which drain to Bird Creek and the Verdigris, also hit new record heights. Keystone hit its all-time high, as did Kaw and the Kansas lakes of Chaney and Eldorado upstream in that basin, he said.

The Corps follows a playbook that governs decision-making and takes into account the increased risk to dam structures that reach capacity, he said.

“There are trigger points on the water levels that put us into daily surveillance and others that go into 24-hour surveillance — that is literally engineers and maintenance and rangers watching at all times,” he said. “Currently, we have 15 structures in 24-hour surveillance and five on daily surveillance.”

Crews monitor the dams for any seepage, constantly check gauges and are in contact with engineers and hydrologists who use modeling to determine how best to bring the system back to normal levels, he said.

“People can sometimes get focused on that one lake, but we want people to remember that this all works as a system with multiple lakes and reservoirs with the No. 1 goal being public safety and doing all we can to mitigate flooding and try to lessen the impacts,” he said.

The goal now is to “get the system back in balance,” he said. “Especially the ones that are above the flood pool, to get them below that 100% (filled), but to bring them down as a system without increasing the flow in the channels. It may mean lessening the releases at one so it can be increased for another, but it all has to work as a system and it’s going to take a while.”

Featured video

Chief Photographer Tom Gilbert went up in a helicopter to show what the flooding looked like on Friday.

Find complete coverage of the storms.

Cleanup begins after deadly tornado hits El Reno

EL RENO — Already turned in for the night at about 10:30 Saturday, Sidonna Jeans said her bed started to bounce as a tornado dropped down on her El Reno mobile home.

“My window is right in front of me, and I watched my friend’s trailer turn over like it was nothing,” said Jeans, 60, who lives at the Skyview Estates mobile home park near the intersection of U.S. 81 and Oklahoma 66.

Jeans said her trailer was left leaning on its side, forcing her to spend the night at a local Veterans of Foreign Wars post that became a shelter for about 25 people left homeless from Saturday’s storm.

A night of severe weather throughout Oklahoma left parts of El Reno in shambles following a tornado the National Weather Service gave an EF-3 rating, which indicates wind speeds up to 145 mph.

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Confirmed tornadoes damage parts of Sapulpa, Broken Arrow, Kellyville

Gallery: See damage from last night’s storms in Sapulpa, Broken Arrow.

Extensive damage was reported across the area after a line of thunderstorms brought multiple tornado warnings early Sunday, with a potential damage path stretching from Kellyville through south Tulsa and Broken Arrow.

The National Weather Service in Tulsa received reports of straight-line winds and possible tornado damage in Sapulpa and Jenks, a meteorologist at the Tulsa office said. The office confirmed EF-1 tornado damage near Kellyville and in Sapulpa and EF-0 tornado damage in Broken Arrow, as they believe several tornadoes were on the ground at the same time producing multiple and varied tracks. Some of the straight-line winds were believed to have exceeded 80 mph.

Some in Creek County had just minutes to get to shelter before a possible tornado tracked near Kellyville and into the heart of Sapulpa just after midnight. The storm left widespread tree damage throughout town, with some structures and vehicles hit by falling branches. A clock at Martha’s Corner in downtown Sapulpa was frozen at 12:20, the time the storm hit, according to area residents.

A water pumping substation was still without power Sunday evening, prompting officials to ask residents to conserve water.

Downtown Sapulpa saw a lot of damage, including at a gourmet popcorn shop at 12 E. Dewey Ave. that was set to open June 1, according to its owner, Johnie Brown.

Next door to that shop is the Berryhill Apartments, 14 E. Dewey Ave. Ryan Fielding and Rachel Allen said they ran red lights Sunday morning to evade the tornado. When the couple pulled up to the apartment building, the wind was blowing so hard Fielding could barely open the car door.

Fielding and Allen made it safely into the shelter below where about 50 to 60 people were taking cover, but the short trip was not without incident.

“I was helping a lady down the stairs in there, and we took a pretty good tumble down the stairs,” Fielding said.

Brad King of Tulsa, an employee of the Firewatchers of Tulsa company, was responding to a dysfunctional alarm system in the building when he heard the tornado notification.

The wind “was actually pulling the doors open here on the Berryhill Building,” he said. “They were latched, but we had to hold them shut.”

Raymond Beck, who owns the “Gone ... But Not Forgotten” memorabilia shop, 108 E. Dewey Ave., was in his store when the storm hit.

“Stuff was flying everywhere. It sounded like a real high-pitched whistle to me. I knew I had to get away from the windows.”

Brandon and Brooke Mull lost the roof of their business in Sunday morning’s storm. The couple own Water Street Tattoo in Sapulpa.

Brandon Mull was in bed when his daughter ran in to tell him the storm sirens had gone off. “We all jumped up, got all the kids together, got in our safe room that we have — it’s basically a shower — but tried to hide.”

Then the alarm for his business went off and he went downtown to check on it. “I came down here, and I couldn’t even open the back door because of all the debris in front of it,” he said.

A huge tree was down along the exit of Sapulpa Middle School at 2:30 a.m. Sunday.

The trunk of the tree was blocking the entrance to South Apple Street. Loren Elmore, 79, helped remove it after the tornado went over his home.

“It doesn’t look like there’s any house damage, but ... we’ve already cleaned off a whole bunch of trees down there,” Elmore said. “And this big one, it burnt my chainsaw up, I think.”

As the storm crossed Dewey Avenue, Samantha Ward and Charlene Newnum saw what they believe was a funnel cloud amid power flashes and lightning.

Ward said she ran upstairs to get her chinchilla, Nike, before scrambling back into the bathroom to ride out the storm. They felt the apartment building shake and groan as the storm passed over, bringing down a large tree that destroyed several balconies on the building’s south side.

“It was kind of a bunch of noises at once, like crackling,” Ward said. “I remember hearing almost cracking.”

Trees were downed several blocks away on either side of the damage path, and the storm snapped at least a dozen power poles along Hobson Avenue. A few broke off high enough to be suspended in the air on the wires, but others broke clean at the base and fell across the street onto parked cars and into front yards. One pickup truck headed east on the street appeared to have hit one of the poles as it fell, doing significant damage, but neighbors said no one was injured.

The storm continued northeast through Sapulpa, damaging a cemetery and other homes with fallen trees. Several trees were also downed at City Hall and Sapulpa High School, but the Sapulpa Police Department said there were no reports of fatalities and just a few minor injuries, according to a Facebook post.

The line of storms had spawned a deadly EF-3 tornado in El Reno before coming through the Tulsa area. Two people were killed in El Reno, where the tornado hit a motel, mobile home park and several businesses near U.S. 81 and Oklahoma 66, according to officials there.

Outside Sapulpa, damage ranged from Jenks to Broken Arrow, with many roads closed, including parts of the Creek Turnpike near the Jenks Toll Plaza, according to the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. The turnpike reopened Sunday afternoon. Andy Little with the Tulsa Fire Department said no injuries had been reported in Tulsa.

Several areas along Kenosha Avenue (71st Street) in Broken Arrow sustained tree damage, and a dugout at Broken Arrow High School’s baseball field was damaged. More than 25,000 people were without power in the Tulsa metro area at 2:30 a.m., according to AEP-PSO. That number had fallen to about 1,800 as of Sunday afternoon.

Featured video

Chief Photographer Tom Gilbert went up in a helicopter to show what the flooding looked like on Friday.

Find complete coverage of the storms.