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.