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Disasters Pile Up As Storms Continue Plowing Through Oklahoma


Oklahoma has been walloped by severe weather this past week. First there was major flooding in many parts of the state. Then this past weekend, a brief but powerful tornado slammed a small town west of Oklahoma City. Two people were killed. Meanwhile the forecast this week is calling for more rain, which, in turn, would lead to more flooding. We're joined now by Rachel Hubbard. She's been covering this from member station KOSU. Hi, Rachel.


KELLY: Hi. So start with the tornado this weekend. What exactly happened?

HUBBARD: Well, there was a line of thunderstorms that was moving across Oklahoma. And most people were aware of it. But it spun up this brief tornado called a QLCS tornado. These are the specific kinds of tornadoes that happen in these lines of thunderstorms. And they're known for being brief and weak. But they're also known for coming with very little warning.

And this came at night. It only stayed on the ground for just four minutes. It was only 75 yards wide. But it hit right at this point - if you look on either one side or the other side of this 75-yard section, there's a car lot and a boat lot. It hit a motel and a trailer park. So two people died, and it was terrible.

KELLY: And do you know what the situation is today in El Reno, how they're doing?

HUBBARD: Well, they had already activated their severe weather plan. And this town is well-practiced because it was hit just six years ago by the largest tornado on record. They were already dealing with flooding that had happened earlier in the week. The governor of Oklahoma visited today. And President Donald Trump did call Governor Kevin Stitt while he was out and about saying that the nation's prayers were with Oklahoma.

KELLY: And I imagine everybody who was in this trailer park has had to find somewhere else to stay for the meantime.

HUBBARD: They have been evacuated. It tossed these trailer homes like tin cans. And there was one woman that said that she had turned in early and felt her bed bouncing. And she was evacuated and is staying elsewhere now.

KELLY: The flooding - this is not restricted to just this small part of the state. This is the whole state of Oklahoma that's going through this. Is that right?

HUBBARD: Yeah, 25% of the state has had at least 14 inches of water in the last 30 days. And if you look at towns in northeast Oklahoma like Skiatook - they've had 21 1/2 inches, Nowata 23 inches. It's just crazy. And this is all coming to a head in Tulsa along the Arkansas River.

KELLY: And what exactly is happening in Tulsa?

HUBBARD: Well, so all of this water from upstream that's coming from northeast Oklahoma is heading downstream into Tulsa. They have these aging levees. Many of them were built in the 1940s. The Keystone Dam is releasing huge amounts of water, and that has led to thousands of people being evacuated from their homes in the Tulsa area.

And then if you go down river, as you get closer to Arkansas, some communities, like Braggs and Webbers Falls, have been totally emptied out. One mayor earlier this week told people that if they refuse to evacuate, they should write their identification on their arm.

KELLY: Wow. I mean, it does sound as though it's just an overwhelmingly awful combination of floods and tornadoes and bad weather. What are people saying as you are out and about interviewing people and, I guess, just talking to your own neighbors?

HUBBARD: Well, people here are well-practiced. When we went into the basement on Saturday night with a tornado warning that hit near our home, our neighbors had their medication already prepared in plastic bags to take into the basement. But this has just been every day for nearly a month. And when you constantly have warnings coming through on your cell phone for floods and tornado watches and thunderstorms, it is hard to not just shut down.

KELLY: Yeah. Today, of course, is a holiday, Memorial Day. But are schools on track, businesses on track for business as usual tomorrow?

HUBBARD: Well, if it's not in a flooding area. So in Tulsa, there are hotels and businesses that have been evacuated. And they are expecting that it will be at least a week before they'll be able to return. And that's if they don't receive additional rainfall.

KELLY: Rachel Hubbard of member station KOSU in Oklahoma City - thank you, Rachel.

HUBBARD: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Hubbard is a 20-year news veteran and serves as KOSU's executive director.