Officials on Saturday warned some Tulsa residents to prepare to head to higher ground because old levees holding back the swollen Arkansas River are stressed and more rain is expected for the flood-weary region.
The river was four feet above flood stage on Friday and was already causing flooding in parts of Oklahoma’s second-largest city, including in south Tulsa, where the murky brown water had inundated low-lying neighborhoods and crept right up to the River Spirit Casino Resort, which closed for the weekend.
City officials said at a news conference Saturday that people living west of downtown should consider leaving for higher ground, even though the levees aren’t currently considered to be in danger of failing. If an evacuation becomes necessary, it would need to happen quickly, officials said.
Mayor G.T. Bynum said the levees were built in the 1940s and haven’t had to hold back this much water since 1986. Officials also said they don’t expect the river to recede in Tulsa until Wednesday at the earliest, pushing back their initial estimate by three days.
“The level of risk you have in staying there is very high,” Bynum said. “That’s an unnecessary risk.”
About 55 miles southeast of Tulsa, the small town of Braggs was completely surrounded by water and without power, according to Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman Keli Cain.
Cain said it’s not clear how many of the town’s approximately 260 residents evacuated before the flooding, but water rescue teams deployed to assist there, as well as in other areas of Muskogee, Wagoner, Rogers and Nowata counties.
Officials in Muskogee and Wagoner counties urged voluntary evacuations of low-lying areas along the Arkansas River, where water could be seen up to roofs, as well as along the rising Verdigris River.
Cain said that across the state, 87 people have been injured in the flooding, which has not yet peaked.
Storms have buffeted the central Plains and Midwest all spring, inundating the ground and leaving rain with nowhere to go but into already bloated waterways. The region’s most recent spate of bad weather and flooding has been blamed for at least nine deaths.
The National Weather Service updated its peak flooding prediction, and said it now expects the river to reach 41 feet near Fort Smith by late Tuesday night. That level would be 3 feet higher than its previous record, which was set in 1945. This would cause “near catastrophic flooding” in Fort Smith’s low-lying neighborhoods and business district, it said.
Additional storms are possible in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas over the next week, according to the latest forecasts.
In Indiana, officials said Saturday that water levels had dropped slightly on a rain-swollen creek in the north of the state where a 4-year-old boy was swept away Thursday. The boy, Owen Jones, had not been found.
In Indianapolis, site of Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, the forecast calls for an 80% to 90% chance of rain, with thunderstorms expected throughout the day. That means a lot of uncomfortable waiting for IndyCar drivers and teams, track and series officials, broadcast partner NBC and about 250,000 fans.