Arkansas River Watershed Is At Breaking Point, Oklahoma Governor Says

May 29, 2019
Originally published on May 29, 2019 12:07 pm
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NOEL KING, HOST:

In Oklahoma, Tulsa and areas around that city are in a kind of standoff with the Arkansas River. Hundreds of homes and businesses have already been flooded, and Governor Kevin Stitt is counting on levees to keep the damage from getting worse.

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KEVIN STITT: We've just got to pray for no rain up north. And if we keep getting rain into that watershed, there could be some serious problems.

KING: Because, as NPR's Frank Morris reports, the old levees protecting the Tulsa area are starting to show their age.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Sand Springs, Okla., straddles the Arkansas River just west of Tulsa. It's a working-class suburb complete with a big, old steel mill and, until last week, an expansive riverfront park.

BEAU WILSON: This is a major feather in our cap, and probably 90% of the park, at this point, is inundated by water.

MORRIS: Beau Wilson's forefathers worked at the steel mill here. He's a city councilman with an insurance business looking out at a lot of brown water where the city's new park used to be. His grandparents and aunt and uncle are flooded out, too, along with hundreds of others in this town. But what worries him are the levees, like this one downstream from the park.

WILSON: And it's an earthen levee made out of dirt and sand 70 years ago.

MORRIS: The Arkansas River has climbed this far up on the levees before once and for only a few hours. Wilson says this time the river could rage at near-record levels for a week, and that's without more rain. The Army Corps of Engineers is letting 275,000 cubic feet of water per second roar out of the Keystone Dam just upstream from Sand Springs, close to record flows. The levees are stressed; they're leaking.

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Stop your vehicle.

MORRIS: Police keep drivers back from the section where floodwater runs from the levee, as construction crews heap sand around its base. It's starting to rain, and businesses in the shadow of this levee are scrambling. Kathy Adams (ph) is rushing to empty a construction company warehouse.

KATHY ADAMS: We're taking about everything out - the lumber, buildings and everything.

MORRIS: Why's that?

ADAMS: Well, afraid of the levee breaking and flooding.

MORRIS: Even without breaking, the old, saturated levee is slowly failing. Val Silcox (ph) points out water bubbling up from under the pavement, perhaps 40 feet from the levee, into the building that she and Adams are unpacking.

VAL SILCOX: We're evacuating. The water's rising behind us. It's coming up under the concrete. It's getting wetter and wetter.

MORRIS: Out front, Silcox's husband, Cleven Silcox (ph), hustles to truck what he can out of the yard - lumber, small wooden sheds, piles of sheet metal. Time is running out.

CLEVEN SILCOX: There's water all underneath this property, and we're getting stuck with our forklifts, where this is hard gravel. It's been here for years, and it's never been an issue. But the water has undermined it. So therefore, our forklifts are getting stuck.

MORRIS: So it's time to go.

C SILCOX: It's time to go.

MORRIS: Sand Springs has flooded before, but the levees protecting the town have always held. But Wilson fears that this could be the time they fail.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Sand Springs, Okla.

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