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2019 flood: Repairs, upgrades still in the works for the 'antiquated' levee system that held

The flood event of 2019 was well underway by May 18, 2019, but the only Tulsa-area agency talking about sandbags and evacuations at that point was Tulsa Levee District 12 — managers of what some called an antiquated levee system viewed as the area’s weakest link with the river.

The 70-year-old structure held, thanks to a herculean human effort. A year later it remains damaged, but repairs and improvements lie ahead that could eliminate the need for the manpower required the next time Tulsa gets into a flood fight.

As the Tulsa District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers prepared to open Keystone Dam last May to allow more flow than the Arkansas River had seen through Tulsa in two decades, levee commissioner Todd Kilpatrick had a plan that called for early emergency steps.

“We saw all the precursors,” he said. “We were hitting those trigger points, so from my perspective what we had in our plans was coming to fruition. ... Those reservoirs upstream were already pretty high and downstream was at flood stage.”

Tulsa County borrowed sandbag machines from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and organized a volunteer community “drill” to fill them. Also, a group of 30 to 40 homeless people in a camp between the levee and the riverbank at Newblock Park were evacuated to higher ground.

“We were still hopeful at that point it wouldn’t really be needed, but we wanted to err on the side of caution,” he said. “It ended up we had so many volunteers at the sandbags we were turning people away. We wished we had four or five more sandbag machines at the time. It’s such a laborious task filling them, and 10,000 sandbags can go away so quick.”

As everyone now knows, those sand bag machines cranked up for that drill weren’t stowed away again for weeks, and they often ran 24/7 with National Guard service members filling thousands of sandbags to be delivered throughout the area.

Kilpatrick and Tulsa County District 2 Commissioner Karen Keith had for years lobbied for levee improvements, and now the scene was set for the old structure to grab the focus of hundreds of volunteers, especially people who owned property behind it, as well as the attention of local and federal officials.

Its every weakness — and its strengths — would soon be tested and revealed.

Kilpatrick’s story of the flood fight plays out like a 21-day siege. A year later the levee headquarters building still is surrounded by walls of sun-bleached sandbags he jokingly calls his “security blanket.”

“The duration was the thing,” he said. “The 1986 flood, people don’t remember, it was about nine hours from peak flow to the bottom. This thing lasted and lasted, and it was like a game of attrition. I’m glad we had a plan, or four days in we would have lost it. There was no way we could have kept up with all the mitigation work.”

Six people, the standard levee crew, worked nonstop the first few days of the flood. At highest river flow, the peak effort took 200 National Guard members on rotations to cover 24 hours, with volunteer help from Tulsa and Sand Springs police, fire and sheriff's departments, and the Oklahoma Department of Transportation and Oklahoma State Parks, as well as community volunteers, he said.

“It was a massive logistics fiasco at first, but a couple days in with the National Guard it all came together. They just needed to learn what to do in a flood fight: the implementation, how to build a ring dike, and then patrol and what to look for,” he said. “We had Chinooks and Blackhawk helicopters, drones — it is amazing what you can do with that many people concentrated on one goal.”

Every time the river flow increased, water pressures increased and all the sandbags and early mitigations needed new reinforcement in addition to anything new that popped up, he said.

The plan to start early and call in the troops worked and will remain unchanged for now, Kilpatrick said.

“Now we know the areas where we had major seepage. We know those areas are still there and what areas to bird-dog first,” he said. “Out of seven pump stations only one was functional, but we had a plan for bringing in auxiliary pumps with our antiquated 1945 pumps.”

County crews have completed a host of repairs along the dikes, but larger efforts are booked for later this summer, and a long-term upgrade remains on the horizon.

The first repairs to bring the levees back to original condition after the flood will come in two phases with about $8 million in federal dollars, a portion of Corps funding issued nationally following widespread disasters in 2019.

Those include fixes to 13 erosion sites and repairing a concrete flood wall at 65th Street and Charles Page Boulevard, followed by replacement of the levee’s antiquated pumps at a later date, according to Dawn Rice, Tulsa District U.S. Army Corps project manager.

The erosion and flood wall work is out for bid now, and work should begin on those projects this summer, she said.

“The erosion sites and the flood wall come first because those are highly critical in case of flooding,” she said.

More cleaning and investigation of the old pump houses is required to determine what modern equipment will be most compatible with the existing pump houses and future infrastructure, she said.

Future long-term upgrades to the infrastructure include upgraded pumps and added and improved berms along the levees on the side opposite the river as part of upgraded and improved toe drains and retention ponds to collect the floodwater that naturally seeps through the levees during these events and pump it back into the river.

Those improvements were part of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers feasibility study for repairs, which actually commenced prior to the flood event.

It was booked on a three-year timeline with a $3 million budget. The flood changed that, and it was expedited.

“We cut the schedule in half, less than half, and cut the budget by 30%,” said Bryan Taylor, civil works project manager for the Tulsa District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “It’s definitely the fastest ever for the Corps of Engineers in the nation. We had an amazing team on this. It was a huge effort but we were able to complete it in record time.”

With the project design and feasibility study completed in 16 months, now it is up to Congress. U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe was one of many who paid close attention to the levees during the flood and the improvements plan. Despite government attention now focused on the coronavirus pandemic, the levee project should continue to move forward, he said.

“Right now we’re in a good place in terms of the next steps for the levees,” he stated via email. “(The U.S. Army Corps Chief of Engineers’) report is signed, so preconstruction phases can begin with any remaining funds from the feasibility study, but we do need to line up funds for the entirety of the project. I won’t let Congress lose sight of the importance of funding the levee modernization and repair. Last year the levees were tested in the flooding, and we saw the risk the 70-year-old levees posed to the thousands of families and businesses they protect more plainly than ever before. As the FY21 funding process for the Corps moves this year, I’m going to be fighting that whole time to make sure the levees are included.”

Gallery: Aerial views of flooding along the Arkansas River, Skiatook and Broken Arrow

Gallery: Aerial views of flooding along the Arkansas River, Skiatook and Broken Arrow

U.S., European leaders weigh reopening risks without a vaccine

NEW YORK — On a weekend when many pandemic-weary people emerged from weeks of lockdown, leaders in the U.S. and Europe weighed the risks and rewards of lifting COVID-19 restrictions knowing that a vaccine could take years to develop.

In separate stark warnings, two major European leaders bluntly told their citizens that the world needs to adapt to living with the coronavirus and cannot wait to be saved by a vaccine.

“We are confronting this risk, and we need to accept it, otherwise we would never be able to relaunch,” Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said, acceding to a push by regional leaders to allow restaurants, bars and beach facilities to open Monday, weeks ahead of an earlier timetable.

The warnings from Conte and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson came as governments worldwide and many U.S. states struggled with restarting economies blindsided by the pandemic.

With 36 million newly unemployed in the U.S. alone, economic pressures are building even as authorities acknowledge that reopening risks setting off new waves of infections and deaths. In the U.S., images of crowded bars, beaches and boardwalks suggested some weren’t heeding warnings to safely enjoy reopened spaces while limiting the risks of spreading infection.

Britain’s Johnson, who was hospitalized last month with a serious bout of COVID-19, speculated Sunday that a vaccine may not be developed at all, despite the huge global effort to produce one.

“There remains a very long way to go, and I must be frank that a vaccine might not come to fruition,” Johnson wrote in the Mail on Sunday newspaper.

President Donald Trump, by contrast, promised Americans a speedy return to normalcy that sounded far more optimistic than most experts say is realistic.

“We’re looking at vaccines, we’re looking at cures and we are very, very far down the line,” he said while calling into a charity golf tournament broadcast Sunday broadcast on NBC. “I think that’s not going to be in the very distant future. But even before that, I think we’ll be back to normal.”

Trump said events would likely resume with small crowds — if any — but hopes that, by the time the Masters Tournament is played in November, the crowds can return.

Health experts, however, say the world could be months, if not years, away from having a vaccine available to everyone, and they have warned that easing restrictions too quickly could cause the virus to rebound.

The coronavirus has infected over 4.7 million people and killed more than 315,000 worldwide, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University that experts say under counts the true toll of the pandemic. The U.S. has reported over 89,000 dead and Europe has seen at least 160,000 deaths.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and lead to death.

Some experts noted recent infection surges in Texas, including a 1,800-case jump Saturday, with Amarillo identified as a growing hot spot. Texas officials said increased testing was playing a big role — the more you look for something, the more you find it. Many are watching hospitalizations and death rates in the weeks ahead to see exactly what the new Texas numbers really mean.

But Texas was one of the earliest states to allow stores and restaurants to reopen, and Dr. Michael Saag at the University of Alabama at Birmingham called Texas “a warning shot” for states to closely watch any surges in cases and have plans to swiftly take steps to stop them.

“No one knows for sure exactly the right way forward, and what I think we’re witnessing is a giant national experiment,” said Saag, an infectious diseases researcher.

In the U.S., many states have lifted stay-at-home orders and other restrictions, allowing some types of businesses to reopen.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, told CNN on Sunday that he was concerned to see images of a crowded bar in Columbus, on the first day that outdoor dining establishments were allowed to reopen.

“We made the decision to start opening up Ohio, and about 90% of our economy is back open, because we thought it was a huge risk not to open,” he said. “But we also know it’s a huge risk in opening.”

The Isle of Palms, one of South Carolina’s most popular beaches, saw a rush of visitors this weekend — with Mayor Jimmy Carroll calling Saturday the busiest day he has seen in his more than 60 years there. But police said almost everyone on the beach and in the ocean was staying a safe distance apart.

Houses of worship are beginning to look ahead to resumption of in-person services, with some eyeing that shift this month. But the challenges are steeper in states with ongoing public health restrictions.

In Elgin, Illinois, Northwest Bible Baptist Church had sought to welcome back worshipers on Sunday, preparing to scan people’s temperatures and purchasing protective equipment. But that was postponed after local authorities raised questions.

The church’s preparations were “more than what they’d had to do if they were at Home Depot or Lowe’s or Walmart,” said Jeremy Dys, a counsel at First Liberty Institute, the legal nonprofit representing Northwest Bible Baptist. “Somehow people going to church are incapable, it’s insinuated, of safely gathering.”

Underscoring the tradeoffs involved in resuming such gatherings, officials in California’s Butte County announced Friday that a congregant had tested positive for the virus after attending a Mother’s Day church event that drew more than 180 people.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has suggested that early predictions were overblown, as he attempts to lure residents back to public life and help rebuild the state’s battered economy. On Monday, Florida restaurants will be allowed to operate at 50% capacity, as can retail shops, museums and libraries.

Paula Walborsky, a 74-year-old retired attorney in Tallahassee, Florida, has resisted the temptation to get her hair done and turned down dinner invitations from close friends. But when one of her city’s public swimming pools reopened by appointment, she decided to test the waters. Just a handful of other swimmers shared the water.

“I was so excited to be back in the water, and it just felt wonderful,” Walborsky said.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo got tested for the coronavirus on live television Sunday. Any New Yorkers experiencing flu-like symptoms or those returning to work can now get tested, he said.

“We’re all talking about what is the spread of the virus when you increase economic activity. Well, how do you know what the spread of the virus is? Testing, testing, testing,” he said.

State's COVID-19 'insurance policy' is constructed but empty as officials patiently wait to purchase equipment

Construction on Oklahoma’s COVID-19 “insurance policy” is complete, but without a surge the renovated hospital rooms remain empty as officials evaluate what equipment to purchase and await lower costs in oversupply markets.

As part of its plan to create an additional 40% capacity in hospital systems, the state contracted with OSU Medical Center in Tulsa and Integris-Baptist Medical Center Portland Avenue in Oklahoma City to serve as flex sites in case hospitals reach capacity.

Mayor G.T. Bynum on Thursday noted that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had finished construction on 125 rooms on three floors at OSU Medical Center that are designated only for COVID-19 care. There are 110 such rooms renovated at Integris.

Donelle Harder, spokeswoman for the state on COVID-19, said all the rooms at each location remain empty of equipment as hospitalizations in Oklahoma trend downward and the overflow capacity isn’t required.

She explained that officials are evaluating what other states didn’t need to purchase for their flex sites so that Oklahoma only buys what is absolutely necessary. The state also is looking to find unused, high-quality equipment at more competitive pricing as some states might sell off excesses after gearing up earlier for projections that turned out not to be as bleak.

“It’s kind of the state’s insurance plan for COVID,” Harder said. “All the recent experts are saying we’re probably two years out from getting into a scenario where we feel we’re eradicating COVID.

“We’re a year out if not more from a vaccine, and at that point, how much of the vaccine will really be available to the general public? How soon will we know how effective the vaccine is?”

The agreements are for $3,000 per bed per day, according to each contract.

At OSU, that equates to $375,000 per day or $22.5 million total over the lease’s initial 60 days, which ends June 15.

The contract is renewable on a monthly basis and similar to the one with Integris. Integris’ initial term ends July 1 at $330,000 per day or a total cost of $20.1 million.

Oklahoma Watch first reported about the contracts earlier this month.

Harder said the daily bed cost might seem like a retainer simply for the bed space, but it also encompasses the projected costs to construct and fully staff the units. So, she said, the actual cost isn’t expected to be as high as what is listed in the contracts.

“We’re clearly going to come in under because we’ve not had to staff it yet,” Harder said. “We’ve not had people in beds. We don’t have beds.”

Monica Roberts, OSU’s director of media relations, said a construction invoice hasn’t been produced yet but the cost is expected to be about $6 million.

Harder said existing spaces were converted into intensive-care or medical-grade rooms that control airflow. The state won’t know total construction costs until it is invoiced for the work at OSU Med and Integris.

“We have the most control over OSU’s (contract) because it’s a state entity, whereas Integris, being private, they largely will be in a situation where they can just bill us because we have a contract in place,” Harder said. “Whereas with OSU, even though we have a contract in place, they are still a state entity, so we’re just kind of guaranteed a deeper level of collaboration.”

Harder said the state is in discussions regarding contract renewals or extensions.

She said it’s possible the contracts are allowed to conclude and, in that scenario, it would be in OSU Med’s and Integris’ interests to maintain the facilities in case the state later re-enters agreements amid a resurgence.

“We expect the partnership to continue, but the way the cost structure is arranged will clearly be reviewed at the end of these contracts,” Harder said.

The state will leverage federal reimbursement by pursuing grants from FEMA, HHS and the CARES Act to fully fund the COVID flex centers, from construction to staffing costs.

Without immediate demand, the plan now is to outfit the rooms more slowly in 50-unit increments. Harder said the state’s current agreements allow OSU to relocate and use equipment already at the hospital if demand should rise until new equipment is bought.

“There’s so many unknowns that both of these locations are set up for the potential that COVID really is among us longer than we want it to be,” Harder said. “We want it to be gone sooner, but we technically don’t know when the medical community will have developed a solution to truly rid itself (of the virus) in our state or around the globe.”


Altered lives: See how these Tulsans are adjusting their lives and businesses during the coronavirus pandemic

Altered lives: See how these Tulsans are adjusting their lives and businesses during the coronavirus pandemic

Arts organizations discuss survival during the pandemic on the next 'Let's Talk'

Keith Elder, executive director of Tulsa Symphony Orchestra, and Susan Neal, executive director of Gilcrease Museum, will be the guests on the next “Let’s Talk,” the Tulsa World’s virtual town hall.

The two will discuss the COVID-19 challenge to the fine and performing arts, and the value of art in a pandemic.

The town hall is moderated by Wayne Greene, editor of editorial pages for the Tulsa World, and sponsored by the George Kaiser Family Foundation.

Questions for Elder and Neal can be emailed to wayne.greene@tulsaworld.com before 10 a.m. Tuesday.

The town hall will be posted Wednesday morning on the Tulsa World’s Facebook page and website.