SAND SPRINGS — Alex Gutierrez’s mobile home was one of only three left standing in the aftermath of the March 2015 tornado that hit the River Oaks community.
But he said the rain-swollen Arkansas River proved itself a greater danger to the place he’s called home for the past seven years.
“Everybody’s losing everything,” Gutierrez said as Tulsa County sheriff’s deputies evacuated his block and the adjacent Town and Country subdivision near Oklahoma 51 at 145th West Avenue. “I just got my couches and my TVs and my animals and my clothes, because everything else is gone.”
Sustained heavy rainfall across northeastern Oklahoma prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to increase the flow of water from the Keystone Dam to 250,000 cubic feet per second on Thursday. The Arkansas River is projected to rise to 23 feet, 2 feet below the high reached during the record-breaking October 1986 flood.
The dam released water earlier this week at a rate of 160,000 cfs, implementing gradual increases as Keystone Lake continued to fill with rain. As of 7 p.m. Thursday, the reservoir had inflows exceeding 315,000 cfs.
Authorities began giving notice as early as Tuesday morning to those living near the Arkansas River or in a 100-year floodplain about the possibility of severe damage related to heavy downstream flows.
Sand Springs police officers on Thursday controlled entry into the Meadow Valley neighborhood. They noted that rising waters there already covered streets, sidewalks, driveways and cars — all with no sign of receding by the weekend.
“We thought it would maybe just cover the cul-de-sac and then (the water) would go down and we’d be good,” said Mike Lyons, a Meadow Valley resident who evacuated with his wife, Amanda, and their family. Officers knocked on doors there earlier in the week and encouraged people to leave before the flooding started.
“But now they’re telling us we’re going to have to be out for a week, and our hands are tied,” Lyons said.
Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado was among those who stopped by the Town and Country neighborhood to give residents a final push to escape. He even helped Gutierrez and another volunteer recover a man’s goats.
By the time he went to visit other flood-prone communities, the floodwater had passed the intersection of 19th Street and 145th West Avenue and could be seen starting to enter homes there.
Regalado said the area “has obviously been inundated” with water and stressed the importance of clearing the area before the situation becomes life-threatening.
“We’ll continue those efforts until we’re satisfied that people are safe in these neighborhoods,” he said.
While Sand Springs authorities did not force anyone to evacuate, they told residents the neighborhood would become impassable and would not have power until the water subsides due to the risk of electrical fires.
Sand Springs police announced the closure of Oklahoma 51 around the Meadow Valley area on Thursday evening, saying that “water has overtaken the roadway, and it is not safe for travel.”
“When they said there would be flooding, I expected just a street flood, not all the way past the sidewalk and up,” said Chase Burgoon, who lives in Meadow Valley with his girlfriend, Sierra Cooper, and her family. The couple are staying with a family member in Mannford and returned Thursday morning to pick up clothes.
When they arrived, the flood water was about to cover the address numbers on the mailbox. Burgoon ended up hopping a fence in order to leave the street without risking entering the water.
“We had to stay in a motel last night and came back around 5 o’clock this morning, and the water was about four houses away,” Baylee Metcalfe, another Meadow Valley resident, said.
“It’s pretty hard. With our (four) dogs and two cats, no one really wants to take a whole bunch of animals in. That was the main issue of why we weren’t originally going to leave. But now we have to leave. We weren’t so worried about all of our stuff, just our animals and making sure they’re taken care of,” Metcalfe said.
The Lyonses were able to get their children and pets to safety before taking whatever belongings they could carry to the Crosstown Church of Christ in Tulsa, where the American Red Cross is assisting those displaced by tornadoes and floods. The church was the first place the couple have been able to clean themselves up since being told their home would likely be flooded.
“Our minds are just rambling. It’s just hard to understand this whole thing,” Mike Lyons said. “But I think Sand Springs did an awesome job coming out and letting everybody know two days ahead of time that this was going to take place.”
Gutierrez said he is staying with a friend for the time being and noted that he was already supposed to be at a campsite at the Rocklahoma music festival in Pryor, which he has attended for seven years.
“It’s a tradition,” he said. But a minute later he decided: “Rocklahoma isn’t as important as my house. I’m just thankful for being alive and breathing today.”