Correction: This story incorrectly reported the maximum water flow released from Keystone Lake during flooding in May. The maximum release was approximately 277,000 cubic feet per second. This story has been updated.
From the outside, the bomb shelter-like appearance of Pump Station No. 1 on the Tulsa-West Tulsa Levee System gives an appearance of strength, like a battlement on ramparts protecting the homes and industries of the area.
The station and six others like it stand along the 20 miles of levees that held the Arkansas River at bay for a historic 22-day flood fight, May 10 to June 1. But weaknesses under the surface illustrate issues local officials have complained about for at least a decade and that now are the source behind an urgent push by local, state and federal political leaders for an expedited full upgrade.
Communications among Levee District 12 Commissioner Todd Kilpatrick, Tulsa County District 2 Commissioner Karen Keith and other state and local officials through those three key weeks tell a story that shows it wasn’t the ramparts and battlements that won the fight to protect the 10,000 residents and up to 20,000 who live and work in the area. It was a patchwork of human-powered, round-the-clock work and coordination between local and federal agencies to hold the levees together.
Antiques at work
Kilpatrick offered a little joke prior to a recent tour of the pump station structure, construction of which was completed in 1945.
“Got your $10 for the antique road show?” he asked.
It does indeed feel bomb-shelter tough inside the pump station, but battleship-gray pump housings that look like missile heads from a 1950s sci-fi movie are the first hint you’ve stepped back in time.
“Mercury switches and a whiskey bottle float, that’s how they operate,” Kilpatrick said.
He had to explain “whiskey bottle float” isn’t trade talk for the float that rises with the water in that lower portion of the pump station to push a cable and tip a mercury switch (a glass tube with a ball of liquid mercury inside) to complete an electrical circuit and start the pumps.
“No, it’s an actual jug, a whiskey jug, a ceramic jug,” Kilpatrick clarified. “You have to remember when these were built it, was war time, and materials were in high demand.”
The float system is designed to use those jugs, so there they stay.
“Finding a replacement is tough,” he said. “If something breaks on these pumps, we have to have it machined. ... You can’t find a mercury switch anymore.”
To say the levees “worked as designed” is a gross overstatement of how well things went, Kilpatrick said. “It worked as expected, put it that way.”
And what if the levee system had been simply monitored and left to operate as designed in 1945?
“We would have lost it on about Day 4,” he said.
Emails and texts obtained by the Tulsa World indicate Kilpatrick worked with few days off and slept in his office about half the days the flood event was in full swing.
Kilpatrick and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Tulsa District Chief of Emergency Management William Smiley developed an emergency action plan a few years ago that was successfully followed, according to email correspondence.
The district office was command central for everything from mosquito control to Blackhawk helicopter sandbag deliveries. About a hundred National Guard soldiers and County Levee District and Corps personnel worked 12-hour shifts to monitor every inch of the levees 24 hours a day.
“The Guard kept asking what I needed, and they kept picking it up. We got through it, but it was arduous,” Kilpatrick said.
Water seepage is a part of the design of the levees, which are mostly made of sand. That’s why the levee system has a series of 1,800 relief wells and miles of drainage pipe inside the drain toe on the city side. Water is supposed to collect in the drainage system, and the pumps push it through pipes back out into the river. It’s a sort of invisible underground circular flow where hydrostatic pressure keeps everything intact. The problem is none of it works.
“Our relief wells and toe drains are junk,” he said.
Even if they did, only two of the original pumps still worked. Some had mechanical issues, others simply couldn’t generate enough pressure to push water out against back-pressure from the river and they failed.
“The pressure on the river side was just too much for those 70-year-old pumps,” Kilpatrick said, explaining the need to bring in portable pumps.
Water seepage is normal, but erosion, sinkholes and sand boils are the enemies, he said. There were no breaches of the levees, and no water entered homes or businesses behind the levees, but sand boils kept crews busy and flooded streets and yards.
“It’s like someone opening a fire hydrant. One pops up, and then another and another. It can get out of control quickly, so you have just a little window to jump on it,” he said. “We had some that popped up a hundred yards from the levee.”
Crews circled those eruptions with sandbags to create ponds. Eventually the amount of water in the pond would equalize against the water pressure coming through the sand boil. The bigger the sand boil, the bigger the pond. Some were 3 to 4 feet deep.
“Every time the flow through the dam increased it changed pressure, so all those ponds had to be rebuilt, and you were going back through that drill again, getting it equalized,” he said. “It’s constant monitoring.”
The concrete sea walls, located at Charles Page Boulevard where Bigheart Creek crosses under the road and the railroad tracks, presented a different challenge. The joints of the concrete walls did not expand, crack or fail, but water moved under the foundation, Kilpatrick said. The structure is a pinch point with runoff coming down the creek and pressure from the river pushing back upstream. It was strained and leaked like a pipe joint under too much pressure and, essentially, became buoyant.
Gravel trucks brought loads of rock to add more weight around the seawall, and Blackhawk helicopters brought in 2,500-pound sandbags — all in an effort to essentially hold the structure in place.
Kilpatrick walked the structure at Charles Page recently and said he was unsure of its exact future but knows it’s on shaky ground.
“It will probably have to be completely rebuilt,” he said.
About 20,000 sand bags on pallets form white rows around the District 12 Levee offices and warehouse in Sand Springs, and they’re not going anywhere until Keystone Lake returns to its normal elevation level of 723 feet, Kilpatrick said.
“It’s not time to relax yet,” he said. “I still don’t have a warm, fuzzy feeling.”
The flood pool of the reservoir immediately upstream from Sand Springs and Tulsa is still 60% full, 20 feet above normal. It topped out at 34 feet above normal, when the maximum flow against the levees was 277,000 cubic feet per second at one point, according to Kilpatrick.
Kilpatrick’s concerns are not unwarranted, according to state climatologist Gary McManus. Eastern Oklahoma’s soils still are moist, areas still are prone to flash flooding, lake levels still are high and hurricane season is upon us July through early October.
“Chances are decent that we could get remnants of a tropical storm system as we do many years,” McManus said. “The tropical depression that became Barry is a prime example this week of how these things can come out of nowhere and develop into a tropical storm.”
Emergency repairs are complete, Kilpatrick said, and the levees are prepared should another event happen soon.
Surveys with the Corps of Engineers are underway to determine needs for other repairs that will require larger efforts. Also, a feasibility study started 10 months ago continues to look for a long-term solution.
“A lot of what we experienced in May will work into the feasibility study and help move things along,” Kilpatrick said.
Local and state politicians and Oklahoma’s federal delegation all recently sent letters to the Corps of Engineers asking the Corps to expedite what was initially a three-year feasibility study into about 18 months.
“It’s been moved up as a high-priority project, but now it’s tip-of-the-spear,” Kilpatrick said.
Engineering, designing and obtaining federal matching funds for such a big project takes time, but it’s past due. The Corps labeled condition of the levee system as “unacceptable” in 2008.
“I’m hoping that five years from now we’ll be cutting a ribbon,” Kilpatrick said. “That’s the end goal. To get it completely fixed from end to end and to give everyone sitting behind it a reasonable sense of safety.”