Parked on top of a levee west of downtown Tulsa, Todd Kilpatrick was watching water surge up through two manhole covers like a pair of fountains, splashing into somebody’s flooded backyard. A garden shed was already half submerged. And the water was inching closer and closer to the house itself.
Four mobile water pumps were already sucking water from the neighborhood side of the levee and shooting it back onto the river side. And a fifth pump had just arrived, pulled behind a white Tulsa County pickup. But Kilpatrick couldn’t use it.
“We’ve run out of hose,” a worker told him. Kilpatrick has a crew of six employees responsible for 20 miles of levees between Keystone Dam and Tulsa. None had slept more than a couple of hours in a row for the past week.
Push the pump into somebody’s backyard, Kilpatrick told the crew member.
“Push it into the water,” he said. “You won’t need any intake hose.”
“Whose backyard?” the worker asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” Kilpatrick said. “Anybody’s.”
Running more or less parallel to Charles Page Boulevard, the levees protect two oil refineries and thousands of homes in Sand Springs and Tulsa. But Kilpatrick and his crew were scrambling Friday morning to cope with an increasing number of areas where the water wasn’t staying on the right side of those levees anymore.
It wasn’t coming over the levees or through them, Kilpatrick explained. It was seeping under them.
A levee is like an iceberg. You see only the tip of it, while the structure extends deep below the ground. And that’s where the Tulsa levees weren’t working the way they’re supposed to, Kilpatrick said.
His phone rang. A National Guard Humvee had towed yet another water pump to the top of the levee a few hundred feet upstream. But again, there was no hose.
“Can you push the pump into the water?” Kilpatrick asked.
The National Guard was worried that the Humvee would sink into the wet sand if it drove down the bank of the levee.
“OK,” Kilpatrick said with a deep sigh. “We’ll have to get more hose.”
Where? He hadn’t figured that out yet.
Interrupting the phone call, an official from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers knocked on Kilpatrick’s driver-side window.
“I don’t have a lot of time,” Kilpatrick said, rolling down the glass. “You have two minutes. Go.”
“Well, first of all,” the Corps official said, leaning on Kilpatrick’s truck, “the forecast looks like sh--.”
Tulsa will see scattered showers this weekend, with a chance of more thunderstorms Tuesday, he told Kilpatrick. But worst of all, Kansas is expecting rain, too, and all of that water will drain into the Arkansas and eventually hit these levees.
The Corps official wanted to know if there was a chance residents will need to evacuate.
“It won’t take much more,” Kilpatrick told him, “before I would pull that trigger.”
‘Doesn’t look good’
As commissioner of Levee District 12 for six years, Kilpatrick had a sign painted on a concrete flood-control wall that keeps the Arkansas from flowing across Charles Page Boulevard near 65th West Avenue. Inches from the top of the wall, it marks how high the water came in the infamous flood of 1984.
Now, it’s that high again.
“Our reality,” the sign says. “Never forget.”
The levees were built in 1945. And Kilpatrick has been trying for years to raise an alarm, saying the infrastructure has simply passed its expiration date and the levees need a complete rebuild.
“From scratch,” Kilpatrick said.
“It’s like driving a car from 1945 and then trying to race it. It’s hard enough just to keep the old car running, and you’re going to lose the race. We’re losing the race right now.”
As he was talking, he drove his four-door pickup into a neighborhood near Charles Page and 51st West Avenue, where a single-story clapboard house had become completely surrounded by rising water.
Kilpatrick had walked through the neighborhood earlier Friday morning, and the yard had been completely dry. Now, the water, bubbling up through the ground, appeared to be inches from the front door.
Kilpatrick asked a neighbor to let a crew put a mobile pump in his backyard.
“Do what you need to do,” Jerry Spencer told him. “If you need to drive through the fence, just knock it down.”
Spencer had a stick in his backyard to measure the height of the water, and it had risen several inches in 24 hours. But then it rose several more inches in just a couple of hours, he told Kilpatrick late Friday morning.
“It doesn’t look good,” Spencer said. “If I said I wasn’t worried, I’d be lying.”
“If you see another spot where it starts seeping out of the ground,” Kilpatrick told him, “call us right away. The faster we can get a pump on it, the better.”
For now, that’s all he could do.
Whatever happens over the next several days, the floodwaters will eventually recede. But there will be another flood someday, Kilpatrick said. The question is whether Tulsa will rebuild the levees before the next Big One.
“I’ve been telling people for a long time that it’s a matter of when, not if,” he said. “And now we’re living through the when.”
A team of local, state and federal officials are roughly halfway through a two-year feasibility study on replacing or upgrading the levee system, with the final report expected to offer several options.
On the low end, the levee district might increase maintenance and improve early warning systems.
While at the upper end, Tulsa might replace all of the earthen levees with miles of “slurry walls,” or concrete barriers that go down to bedrock, officials said.
“You build them and then you’re done,” said Tulsa County Commissioner Karen Keith, who has been advocating to rebuild the levees since she was elected to her fist term in 2008. “They basically last forever.”
Slurry walls, however, would cost $100 million, according to estimates from the Corps of Engineers, with Tulsa County responsible for 35%. Keith said she hopes the federal government will let the county borrow its share of the money and repay the U.S. Treasury over 30 years with no interest. Under that arrangement, the money saved by not doing constant maintenance on the old levees would pretty much pay for the new concrete barriers, she said.
“Either way,” she said, “we have to do something. It’s not a choice. The levees have to be replaced.”
Otherwise, sooner or later, a flood will cause a catastrophic failure, and thousands of people will face disaster, she said.
“I’ll tell you something. We’re in a very precarious situation right now. The levees have never had this much water on them for so such a long period of time. We’re going to be very fortunate if it doesn’t turn into a serious situation.”
Chief Photographer Tom Gilbert went up in a helicopter to show what the flooding looked like on Friday.