Update (noon): The release from Keystone Dam is 232,736 cubic feet per second as of noon, according to the Army Corps of Engineers' website.
Update 10:30 a.m.: The release from Keystone Dam is 221,830 cubic feet per second as of 10 a.m., according to the Army Corps of Engineers' website. Data is not available about the inflow to the lake, but the lake's elevation was 753.2 feet, less than a foot from the top of the flood pool and 30 feet above normal.
The National Weather Service in Tulsa increased the forecasted level of the Arkansas River from 21 feet to 23 feet, putting the river in major flood stage and only 2 feet shy of levels reached in October 1986.
Multiple street closings in the city of Tulsa near the Arkansas River are expected to close as waters rise. The rate of release at Keystone is set to increase to 250,000 cfs at noon. That release rate is expected through Sunday.
Levee officials will be on hand as the Army Corps of Engineers increases the rate of release to ensure levees can maintain the flow. Flood sirens will be activated every half-hour for six hours starting at 6 p.m.
Residents can find images showing how the 1986 flood affected Tulsa at cityoftulsa.org/rivermaps.
Tulsa-area officials are preparing for flooding equal to Tulsa’s 1986 flood of record but cautioned Wednesday night that they do not necessarily expect the waters to rise to that level.
Mayor G.T. Bynum said that because there are “just too many variables involved” in predicting water levels along the Arkansas River, the decision was made to “prepare for the worst, hope for the best.”
“This does not mean that we have any information, or necessarily a guarantee or expectation that we will get there,” Bynum said at a news conference at Tulsa Police headquarters. “We would much rather everyone in town know what they need to do to prepare for the worst flood in the history of our city and have it not be as bad and have that be a relief than constantly be trying to catch up with (water flow) rates that fluctuate so much.”
The flood of record occurred on Oct. 5, 1986, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released 307,000 cubic feet of water per second from Keystone Dam. The release rate Wednesday had been expected to increase to 215,000, according to the Corps, but Wednesday night it was 207,000 cubic feet per second, according to the Corps’ website.
Dave Williams, chief of hydrology and hydraulic engineering section for the Tulsa District Corps, said it is possible the flow from Keystone Dam could be increased Thursday morning when the situation is reassessed.
The Tulsa Police Department began evacuating neighborhoods along the Arkansas River on Wednesday afternoon but did not identify the areas for fear of looting.
Tulsa Police Deputy Chief Jonathan Brooks is serving as the incident commander for the public safety response to the flooding. He said that when evacuating neighborhoods, police would activate their sirens and lights to identify themselves and make the evacuation announcement over loudspeakers.
“We will announce that this is an emergency broadcast. They will announce who they are and that they (residents) are in a potential high-risk area,” Brooks said.
The city has released a map that shows areas that flooded in 1986. City officials said residents in those areas along the Arkansas River should begin preparing for the possibility of similar flooding.
Joe Kralicek, director of Tulsa Area Emergency Management Agency, explained that the organization has two types of sirens — one for flooding and one for tornadoes.
“They are very different sounds,” he said. “Our tornado siren is a high tone, our flood siren is a high-low tone. We have samples of the tones at the city of Tulsa website.”
County Commissioner Karen Keith said officials are keeping a close eye on the nearly 21-mile-long levee system that runs from Sand Springs to west Tulsa.
“We are all hoping and praying that it will hold up,” Keith said. “The longer the water is on it — I think at this point we’re going to have 2 or 3 feet of water standing on the levee — the bigger problem we have long term.”
Keith said it has been helpful that the Corps has been gradually increasing the flow from Keystone Dam.
“That helps somewhat keeping the erosion down,” she said. “It is a very delicate balance that we’re doing here.”
Keith encouraged people to take photos of their homes and have their insurance policies available.
“All of those things are so important if you have to put your life back together again after this incident,” Keith said.
Bynum and Gov. Kevin Stitt surveyed the flooding Wednesday morning in a helicopter. Several city councilors were also flown over the flooding in a Tulsa Police Department helicopter.
Evacuations were requested Wednesday by officials in Bixby, Sand Springs and Okmulgee County.
With rain possible Thursday, the chances of the weather becoming severe increase Friday mostly northwest of the Tulsa area.
A few thunderstorms may be ongoing early Thursday with brief heavy rainfall. Additional thunderstorm development is expected later in the afternoon, especially across parts of Pawnee and Osage counties. Those storms carry a risk of large hail and strong wind gusts, according to NWS Tulsa.
As thunderstorm chances continue into the weekend, mainstem river flooding and flash flooding will remain concerns.
Thursday: Mostly cloudy, with a high near 86. 30% chance of showers and thunderstorms. South wind 5-15 mph, with gusts as high as 20 mph.
Thursday night: Partly cloudy, with a low around 71. South wind 10 to 15 mph, with gusts as high as 20 mph.
Friday: A 20% chance of showers and thunderstorms. Partly sunny, with a high near 85. South wind 10 to 20 mph, with gusts as high as 20 mph.
Friday night: A 20% chance of showers and thunderstorms. Partly cloudy, with a low around 72. South wind around 10 mph.
Saturday: A 20% chance of showers and thunderstorms. Partly sunny, with a high near 85. South wind 10 to 15 mph, with gusts as high as 25 mph.
Saturday night: A 20% chance of showers and thunderstorms. Mostly cloudy, with a low around 70. South wind 5 to 10 mph.
Sunday: A 30% chance of showers and thunderstorms before 1 p.m. Mostly cloudy, with a high near 86. South wind 5 to 10 mph.
Sunday night: Mostly cloudy, with a low around 69. South wind around 10 mph.
Monday: Partly sunny, with a high near 87. South wind 10 to 15 mph, with gusts as high as 20 mph.
Editor's note: This forecast was updated after publication with more current details from NWS Tulsa.
Chief Photographer Tom Gilbert went up in a helicopter to show what the flooding looked like on Wednesday afternoon on May 22.
Tulsa County’s levee commissioner had a succinct description for his feelings on floods and river levels mid-day Wednesday: “tired and worried.”
Todd Kilpatrick has lobbied five years for improvements to the 20 miles of what he calls outdated levees built in 1945 to protect Sand Springs and west Tulsa from floods, and he has faced resistance.
“It’s been like trying to sell lifejackets in the desert,” he said. “It’s hard to sell flood protection when people look at the Arkansas and it’s an ebb-and-flow sand box.”
Every time the river rises he can’t sleep at night, and the Arkansas River has been anything but a sand box for some time.
“Going on 16 days straight,” he said. “You get sleep when you can.”
With releases from Keystone Dam increased to 207,000 cubic feet per second Wednesday afternoon and storms and more rain in the forecast, Kilpatrick sees potential for trouble in west Tulsa and Sand Springs on Wednesday night.
Kilpatrick said the river in the levee area should equalize around 6 to 7 p.m. tonight.
“The big concern for me is life loss,” he said. “The joint prospect of more rainfall with just nowhere for it to go means we could have pressure from areas inside the levee as well as the Arkansas River.
“I’ve been doing this 20 years, and this is the highest I’ve ever seen the river, and it sure ain’t giving me a warm, fuzzy feeling,” he said. “There have been a lot of things built south of us that weren’t there, a lot of infrastructure and high-dollar homes, that were not there in 1986.”
Tulsa County notes that the levees protect an estimated $2 billion worth of infrastructure in Sand Springs, west Tulsa and Tulsa County as well as 10,000 lives in these areas.
The greatest areas for risk are where Big Heart, West Big Heart and Harlow creeks flow into the Arkansas River at the Charles Page Floodway Structure near South 65th West Avenue, he said.
“The water is 3 to 4 feet up on the levee now, and when this is said and done, a lot of people will want a better levee,” he said. “If not for what we have, there would be a lot of inundation right now.”
The duration of flooding and soaking of the levee is the issue, he said. “It’s a sand levee, so the longer the duration the more your risk goes up, and that’s the concern, how long will it have to stay saturated?” he said.
Improvements to the levee have been debated for years, although some headway has been made in additional funding for capital improvements and county officials are nine months into a two-year study with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on exactly what improvements will be incorporated into the 20 miles of earthen barriers, retention ponds and pumps. Cost of the projects is estimated at $34 million.
Kilpatrick said he started 20 years ago with about $15,000 annually for capital improvements, and now it’s a little over $16,000. “For 20 miles of levee,” he said. “That’s why I’ve pressured to get the thing fixed to get to a level where it’s stronger.”
“You want to make them as robust as you can,” he said. “You can never have them at 100%, but we would sure like to get the probability of any problems up a lot higher on the curve.”
While Kilpatrick said the levee indeed fits the description on the Tulsa County website as “among the most at high risk in the nation because of aging infrastructure and design limitations,” it is doing its job.
“We should be grateful because if it wasn’t where it is today there would already be a lot of people getting wet,” he said. “I think this will be an eye-opener for a lot of people.”