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State preparing to request expanded FEMA disaster declaration aid for flood victims

Individuals, business owners and local governments affected by flooding and other severe weather in the state will have to wait a while longer before learning whether the federal government will provide financial assistance.

That’s because state officials are still gathering the data needed to make the case to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for additional federal aid for the widespread damage caused by Arkansas River flooding and other recent severe weather events.

“We’re working with FEMA right now to identify damages in some of the impacted counties in order to have the governor request a major disaster declaration for individual assistance,” said Keli Cain, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management. “We know there is a lot of significant damage out there, and we are working as hard as we can at the state level to make the case to FEMA so that they will have what they need to approve that request.”

Gov. Kevin Stitt has declared an emergency in all 77 counties in the state due to severe weather this month.

President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed an order declaring 10 Oklahoma counties affected by flooding to be eligible for limited FEMA assistance.

The presidential order cleared the way for Oklahoma to receive technical assistance from FEMA or other federal agencies.

The disaster designation also permits the state to quickly obtain generators and other equipment from FEMA without going through the process of purchasing or leasing it independently.

“It’s an opportunity to bring in some of those federal assets a little bit faster during response,” Cain said.

The presidential declaration covers areas of Tulsa, Haskell, Kay, LeFlore, Muskogee, Noble, Osage, Pawnee, Sequoyah and Wagoner counties affected by flooding beginning May 7.

Cain could not provide a timeline as to when the request for individual assistance would be submitted to FEMA.

But she said the aid requests likely will be submitted in phases, with the individual aid request receiving top priority.

If approved by FEMA, individual assistance programs would include assistance for housing, medical care and low-interest loans through the U.S. Small Business Administration, Cain said.

“Unfortunately, it is not something where we can request it without having some data to back up that request,” Cain said. “So for the last couple of days, we have been working with FEMA to provide that data before the floodwaters recede.”

State and local officials have been exploring alternative methods to conduct damage assessments so the process can be expedited, she said.

U.S. Sen. James Lankford said Thursday evening that “as they go through the process, they have to evaluate the damage, how widespread it is, what the cost of that is. It’s my understanding that in the last few hours they have moved from disaster declaration to major disaster declaration.”

Households that do qualify for individual assistance through FEMA can receive grants of up to $35,000 for uninsured losses. The average award is $5,000 per household, according to FEMA.

Currently, the state estimates that about 1,000 homes statewide have been affected in some way by the severe weather, but that number is expected to increase as more people who were evacuated return to their homes for the first time in the coming days.

Cain said FEMA doesn’t have a set threshold in damage for areas to be designated eligible for individual assistance. Rather, state officials have been relying on past experience to gauge their chances of receiving that designation from FEMA.

“We think if we have 300 to 500 homes that have major damage or are destroyed, that’s kind of what we are looking for to make that initial request,” Cain said.

FEMA last granted aid to individuals in Oklahoma in 2015 when storms caused flood and wind damage in the southern portion of the state.

State Insurance Commissioner Glen Mulready said he would be surprised if FEMA aid to individuals is not approved.

“I can’t say without any uncertainty, but I can’t imagine that we do not receive the declaration and have FEMA assistance coming in, from everything that I’ve seen,” Mulready said.

Meanwhile, he said he has learned through his tours of damaged communities that there is confusion among many as to whether they need flood insurance.

Of the approximately 1.1 million dwellings in the state that have insurance, only about 14,000 structures are covered under the National Flood Insurance Program, Mulready said.

“The vast majority of people who have received flood damage do not have flood insurance,” Mulready said. “The people that I’ve talked to that were affected that had flood insurance I could probably count on two hands.”

Many wrongly believed they didn’t need flood insurance if their home was outside the 100-year flood plain and their mortgage company didn’t require it, Mulready said.

“As you can see, that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t needed,” Mulready said. “I think folks misinterpreted the requirements to have a loan to mean if it’s not required then there is no chance that your home is going to flood.

“Unfortunately, that has played out not to be true.”

Anyone in communities that participate in the program can acquire flood insurance coverage regardless of whether they are in flood-prone areas or whether a presidential disaster declaration has been issued.

The program caps coverage on residential structures at $250,000 and $100,000 for contents, he said. Higher coverage caps are permitted for businesses.

Both Cain and Mulready urged people who have experienced losses to report property damage at

The resulting data help local and state emergency managers better coordinate response and recovery efforts.

Public officials prepare flood survivors for recovery; survivors confront officials about water release

Update (6:30 a.m. Friday): 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.

Weather update: Forecasters warn more rain possible Saturday night and continuing through next week

SAND SPRINGS — Residents confronted and inquired of government officials about the area flooding disaster at a meeting where officials were preparing survivors for the recovery ahead.

John DesBarres, who lives west of Sand Springs, took issue with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ policy of reacting to “water on the ground” rather than preemptively releasing water, he said. Water flows from the Keystone Dam are dictated by water on the ground rather than on forecasts.

DesBarres’ disruption Thursday night was met with loud applause and cheers from his peers in the crowd at Broadway Baptist Church, 1000 N. Adams Road.

“We people along the Arkansas River … want you pulling the pools down because the government allowed these houses to be built where they were built,” DesBarres said. “They were permitted and built, and now the Corps of Engineers should not be exercising … what amounts to reverse condemnation for many people.”

The Corps of Engineers has maintained that the Keystone Dam serves to mitigate flooding downstream and is operated according to a plan approved by Congress.

DesBarres said his home flooded with water that was at least 6 feet high before it began receding. He directed his criticism toward federal, state and local officials.

Enough people from the area attended the meeting at the church to fill its sanctuary to standing room only, and DesBarres’ sentiments were echoed by several in attendance.

During the meeting, public officials — including Tulsa County District 1 Commissioner Karen Keith, U.S. Sen. James Lankford, Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado, Tulsa County Emergency Management Director Joseph Kralicek and Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner Glen Mulready — emphasized what the recovery effort will entail.

Regalado remarked on the strength of the flood survivors, some of whom have lost everything and “still managed to ask how we were doing.”

“Now more than ever, I ask you to call upon that strength because the recovery process can be more emotional and more tough on you than the actual disaster itself,” Regalado said.

Lankford outlined for residents what they can expect while requesting assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He said late Thursday that it was his “understanding … they have moved from disaster declaration to major disaster declaration.”

That declaration will enable FEMA to offer individual assistance with maximum payouts up to $35,000. The senator’s mantra during the meeting was documents and documentation.

Flood survivors are encouraged to collect all documentation they can that proves ownership or that can be used to show loss. Those returning to their homes are encouraged to document the conditions before they start the “muck out” process, multiple officials said.

Lankford recommended looking for any older photographs that show the property and its condition prior to the flood.

The documentation procedure will be closely followed by or coincide with the muck out procedure. Survivors will want to strip their homes of furniture, carpet, bedding, drywall, trim and the like, Kralicek said.

The rule of thumb for drywall is to find the water line, move up 2 feet and rip out everything below that. Survivors were encouraged to salvage what can be salvaged.

“Going into the house, you need to make sure that you’ve got boots and gloves on and be very careful when you’re getting in there,” Kralicek said. “What we find is that sometimes snakes and other critters will get into the house.”

Residents will want to rake, shovel and brush out the muck. That can include sand, mud, vegetation and other debris. They then will want to open windows, set up fans and air the place out. The goal, Kralicek said, is to mitigate further damage.

Regalado said that during this process, deputies and other law enforcers will continue to work to secure the neighborhoods.

Oklahoma residents seeking nonemergency disaster or health and human service information are asked to call 211. Services are available 24 hours a day by dialing 211 from a landline or cellular telephone.

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

Update (6:30 a.m. Friday): 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.

Weather update: Forecasters warn more rain possible Saturday night and continuing through next week

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers informed local officials gathered in the Emergency Operations Center on Wednesday morning that it would begin reducing the flow of water into the Arkansas River from Keystone Dam, the room filled with applause.

It didn’t last long. With the good news came a word of caution that was shared with the public at a news conference later in the day: The release from the dam must be done slowly, or the levees could be damaged.

A day later, with the sun shining brightly and no rain in the forecast for days, the condition of the levees remains the foremost concern for local officials.

“With the levee that we have, which is primarily sand materials, with the river being up on it for as long as it’s been … the levee has been loaded,” said City Engineer Paul Zachary. “When those soils become wet, they become heavier, and the river is actually providing lateral support, or side support, to help contain that additional weight of the levee.”

Remove that support too quickly, Zachary said, and the wet, heavy soil that is no longer supported by the flow of the river could begin to slough, or slip, down the face of the levees into the water below.

“You want to allow the levee to drain as you lower the (river) water surface level elevation,” he said. “Because if you do a rapid draw-down, you will increase the chances of a slide of soils along the face of that levee, and that is not what we want.”

After several days of releasing 275,000 cubic feet of water per second from Keystone Dam, the Corps announced late Wednesday that the outflow had been reduced to 265,000 cfs at 4 p.m. and that thereafter, it would be reduced by 10,000 cfs every six hours, or 40,000 cfs a day.

As of 6 p.m. Thursday, the outflow was 220,000 cfs, according to the Corps’ website.

The elevation of the reservoir was at 755.42 feet, about a foot and a half below the top of the flood pool.

The elevation of the river, meanwhile, peaked at 23.41 feet Wednesday, more than 5 feet above flood level.

At 5:30 p.m. Thursday, it was at 20.98 feet, according to the National Weather Service.

Another potential problem keeping public-safety officials up at night is the extensive number of “boils” that have popped up on the land side of the levee system.

They are just what they sound like, small piles — or tiny volcanoes — of soil from which water is escaping. Where that water comes from is key to understanding why the boils are so dangerous.

“The water coming out of it is river water that has found its way underneath or through the levee, and it is coming up on the land side of the levee,” Zachary said.

As water passes under and through the levees in search of a place to escape on the land side of the levees, the pathways could widen, increasing the speed at which the water travels, and making it more likely that the current will pick up soil along the way.

That’s a big problem.

“When the water coming up through the boil is clear, it indicates it’s not moving any soil,” Zachary said. “If the soil becomes cloudy or the color of the river water, it is eroding the soils underneath the levees.”

That is why inspection and observation of the levees is so crucial and why National Guard troops along with Corps personnel are monitoring the levees 24 hours a day, Zachary said.

“The biggest part of a levee operation and loading, is your constant and vigilant inspection and watching the levee, and getting the observers out there and catching these issues in their infancy,” he said. “Just the presence of water on the land side of the levee, that is anticipated, especially with these kinds of soils and this type of levee.”

The Corps has been flooding areas where boils have appeared. The weight of the water effectively plugs them, and mitigates the underground water pressure on the land side of the levee.

Zachary said one point on the levee system has been found to be sloughing, and that the Corps and National Guard were out Thursday to perform maintenance and address any concerns.

City officials have not indicated when people who have evacuated their homes will be allowed to return, but Zachary said the Corps has reported that generally speaking, within the city of Tulsa, the river can hold approximately 160,000 cfs within its banks.