With homes flooded and dams and levees stressed, Oklahoma hopes to survive Arkansas River's wrath

SAND SPRINGS, Okla. – As floodwaters swirled closer, Donald Sales urged his brother to empty his one-story brick home about a half-mile from the Arkansas River.

“If it floods, you’ll thank me. And if it don’t, you’ll be mad. But either way, you’ll be OK,” Sales recounted telling him.

As he stood on an embankment overlooking the damage around him on Wednesday, the same day work crews struggled to maintain aging levees and dams during what meteorologists predict will be Oklahoma’s worst-ever flooding, Sales could only pray that the floodwaters that had already overwhelmed his brother’s home would remain below the newly installed kitchen cabinets.

The Sales family can’t yet check the home because recent excessive rainfall may keep some areas of Oklahoma inundated for days, the forecast office in Tulsa said. Communities close to large river channels are especially at risk, including Sand Springs, population 20,000. 

“It’s crazy to see that much water coming through the dam,” Congressman Kevin Hern said. “People have accepted that this area is devastated and they aren’t going to get back in quickly.”

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Hern spent the past several days motoring slowly above the flooded streets, avoiding submerged mailboxes and winding past stop signs barely sticking out of the water. Along with Tulsa County Sheriff deputies, he surveyed the damage and photographed the flooded homes of his constituents, monitoring floodwaters and providing updates for evacuated homeowners.

Floodwaters in the area seemed to recede slightly by Wednesday afternoon thanks to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reducing the flows from the nearby Keystone Dam. Engineers faced a challenging task: release enough water from the dam so it wouldn’t fail, while holding back enough to limit downstream flooding. 

But with an active flood warning until 4:30 p.m. Friday, worried crews worked to repair a dirt levee protecting this town’s business core, knowing that flooding has already damaged more than 150 local homes. 

A four-foot-wide sinkhole opened in the levee at Main Street near a pumping station that members of the Oklahoma National Guard had worked furiously for the past several days to protect with sandbags.

With the National Weather Service expecting rains to end Wednesday evening, some residents about 5 miles upriver from Tulsa maintained cautious optimism. 

“So far things are holding, and we are blessed in that,” said Sand Springs Police Chief Mike Carter as rain fell.

If the levee fails more residents will be forced to evacuate, just as Donald Sales’ brother did. 

Ultimately, Sales’ brother removed about 85% of his home’s contents. Still, Sales said, this will mark the third time they’ll have to repair the home following flooding.

Homeowners face a difficult and challenging task in repairing and rebuilding. Once the floodwaters recede, they’ll have to shovel out accumulated silt and mud gouged out of the river bottom upstream, and tear out and replace sodden drywall, carpets and cabinets. 

When Hern checked on a constituent’s home Wednesday, water stood at least 5 feet above ground level, the boat’s small wake lapping at the dark bricks and over a mostly-submerged fence. The homeowners had flood insurance, he said – some of the few who did. 

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“Depending on where you are in your working career, this could be the rest of your life,” Hern said. “You’ve put all of your money into your house and now you’ve lost everything. It’s heartbreaking.”

About 50 miles southeast in Muskogee County, Emergency Management spokeswoman Trish German said flooding from intense thunderstorms and the Arkansas River had forced more than 2,400 people to evacuate. Almost 1,100 homes have been flooded, she added.

The rainfall in the Arkansas River has strained a levee system built in the 1940s, said U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma. On Wednesday morning, Inhofe said “there have been problems” but that the levees are “still performing.”

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