A powerful storm system that dropped tornadoes and more than 6 inches of rain in some areas resulted in life-threatening flooding on Tuesday and pushed the Arkansas River closer to its highest level since the flood of 1986.
Despite a threatening forecast with the potential for destructive, long-track tornadoes on Monday, the tornado threat in the Tulsa area didn’t fully materialize until a second wave of storms moved in early Tuesday morning. But flash flood warnings proved accurate as communities north and west of Tulsa received more than 6 inches of rain, sending lake levels up overnight and leading to at least one death and numerous high-water rescues.
Emergency responders in Payne County recovered one body from a car that was swept off a road in Perkins on Tuesday evening, the Perkins Emergency Management Agency reported. The agency said the driver drove around a barricade into high water.
Gov. Kevin Stitt said during a news conference at the Governor’s Mansion early Tuesday evening that there was “widespread damage across our entire state.”
“The frightening part is we’ve got more rain and more storms on the forecast for (Wednesday) and possibly Thursday,” he said.
At least 11 tornadoes touched down in the state Monday and Tuesday morning, according to the Storm Prediction Center.
A tornado detected by the National Weather Service in north Tulsa around 6:40 a.m. Tuesday destroyed at least one residence, severely damaged several others and uprooted numerous trees, causing one injury. The NWS office in Tulsa assigned the tornado a preliminary rating of EF-1.
Another tornado, with a preliminary rating of EF-2, hit the communities of Peggs and Leach near the Cherokee/Delaware county line late Monday.
Stitt took a helicopter tour of El Reno, Kingfisher and Mangum on Tuesday. He is expected to view damage in Tulsa, Bixby, Skiatook and other eastern Oklahoma communities on Wednesday morning.
In Tulsa, city personnel had at one point blocked off more than a half-dozen streets due to flooding. The intensity of the rainfall prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to increase the rate of water released from the Keystone Dam to 160,000 cubic feet per second Tuesday evening.
“I think there’s perhaps an inclination after the big storm’s passed to think that we can all take a deep breath and relax and not worry about anything,” Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said during a Tuesday afternoon news conference. “But there is a tremendous amount of rain deposited in our watershed that has been flowing into Keystone Lake for the last couple of days now.
“Flooding along the Arkansas River is something that we all need to be observant of. I’d ask that all Tulsans keep an eye out and be vigilant.”
The Caney River and Bird Creek reached major flood stage, and the Corps of Engineers said Tuesday that the Arkansas River could reach or exceed its flood stage by the end of the week. The NWS said in a tweet that if that occurs, the river level will be the highest in Tulsa since the 1986 flood.
“With the rainfall that occurred yesterday and last night, we had a tremendous amount of rainfall that fell above the reservoir. Totals up to 9 inches, maybe more than that, in areas of Pawnee and Osage counties,” Corps civil engineer David Williams said. “(The increase in release) will result in minor flooding downstream from the (Keystone) Dam.”
Williams said the move will help ensure that the lake has room to hold more water in case of future severe storms.
Tulsa County Commission Chairwoman Karen Keith said county personnel “did a lot of sandbagging” at levees within the past week. She noted specific efforts in the area of Newblock Park along Charles Page Boulevard as well as around Bigheart and Harlow creeks.
Keith said the county’s levee commissioner reported that “everything is going well” and that “the pumps are doing their jobs.”
“I think we are as prepared for this release rate as any community could possibly be,” said Joe Kralicek, executive director of the Tulsa Area Emergency Management Agency. “We do not think that there is any potential impact situation along the areas behind the levees. We believe those to be secure and sound in regards to this release rate.”
Bynum also said he did not expect homes to see impact, but he said “Tulsa is not a city that is unaccustomed to dealing with flooding.” He encouraged those living along the Arkansas River to remain vigilant and regularly monitor the city’s social media channels for information.
“We do foresee some potential (flooding) impacts, as far as the southern area of the county, in the Jenks area and possibly in the Bixby area,” Kralicek said. “And so we do want to urge those residents of Tulsa County in that area to be ready, to be vigilant and to be prepared to evacuate if responders ask you to.”
John Wiscaver, executive vice president of the Grand River Dam Authority, said his organization defers to the Corps for flood control but that it was too early to tell whether water levels will top the flood pool along the Grand River.
“We believe right now we’re within capacities that flooding shouldn’t be a problem,” he said. “Obviously, due to whatever the Corps’ direction is on release of water, if that became an issue, we have an obligation to and would make the public aware of that.
“The realistic expectation is not only Grand Lake and Lake Hudson, that all reservoirs will be at or near capacity that feed into where the three rivers meet north of Muskogee. We’ve got a water table issue.”