With Tulsa levees 'unacceptable' since 2008, how did they beat a historic 2019 flood?

Todd Kilpatrick, Levee Commisioner for Levee District 12, backs his truck out of the the office building that still has around 20,000 sandbags Thursday, June 27, 2019. MIKE SIMONS/Tulsa World

If it felt like we were close to catastrophe, we were.

Using public records and interviews, Tulsa World reporter Kelly Bostian demonstrated dramatically on Sunday just how close Tulsa came to a levee collapse during the 22-day flood, May 10 to June 1.

Leadership, cooperation and good luck got us through, but there’s no guarantee that combination will defy the laws of physics again next time.

The story’s largest theme: Tulsa’s levee system is an aging mess. It’s 75 years old and relies on World War II-era technology — whiskey bottle floats and mercury switches. Only two of the original pumps still work.

May’s floods tested the relic to the utmost degree. At the most critical moment, the levees faced 285,000 cubic feet per second of flow from the flood-swollen Arkansas River. The deluge continued for weeks, and things started falling apart.

Erosion, sinkholes and sand boils were constantly threatening to start the breach that would have endangered 20,000 people who live and work inside the levee’s protection and more than $2 billion in public and private infrastructure. If the levees failed, the damage in human lives and financial costs would have been monumental, unimaginable.

National Guard troops supplied reconnaissance on weak points; Blackhawk helicopters brought in sandbags for isolating pressure points; and everyone watched and prayed.

And we got lucky. This time.

The levee system must be replaced and improved.

Under the most optimistic timeline, that’s five years away, and — frighteningly — meeting that schedule depends on people in Washington, D.C., agreeing to the urgency, doing their jobs and cooperating with one another.

Until then, we’ll watch and pray — and depend on the creative problem-solving of the Tulsa levee crew to coax our city’s essential but outdated fortifications through whatever comes down the river.

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