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2019 flood: Repairs, upgrades still in the works for the 'antiquated' levee system that held
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2019 flood: Repairs, upgrades still in the works for the 'antiquated' levee system that held

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The flood event of 2019 was well underway by May 18, 2019, but the only Tulsa-area agency talking about sandbags and evacuations at that point was Tulsa Levee District 12 — managers of what some called an antiquated levee system viewed as the area’s weakest link with the river.

The 70-year-old structure held, thanks to a herculean human effort. A year later it remains damaged, but repairs and improvements lie ahead that could eliminate the need for the manpower required the next time Tulsa gets into a flood fight.

As the Tulsa District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers prepared to open Keystone Dam last May to allow more flow than the Arkansas River had seen through Tulsa in two decades, levee commissioner Todd Kilpatrick had a plan that called for early emergency steps.

“We saw all the precursors,” he said. “We were hitting those trigger points, so from my perspective what we had in our plans was coming to fruition. ... Those reservoirs upstream were already pretty high and downstream was at flood stage.”

Tulsa County borrowed sandbag machines from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and organized a volunteer community “drill” to fill them. Also, a group of 30 to 40 homeless people in a camp between the levee and the riverbank at Newblock Park were evacuated to higher ground.

“We were still hopeful at that point it wouldn’t really be needed, but we wanted to err on the side of caution,” he said. “It ended up we had so many volunteers at the sandbags we were turning people away. We wished we had four or five more sandbag machines at the time. It’s such a laborious task filling them, and 10,000 sandbags can go away so quick.”

As everyone now knows, those sand bag machines cranked up for that drill weren’t stowed away again for weeks, and they often ran 24/7 with National Guard service members filling thousands of sandbags to be delivered throughout the area.

Kilpatrick and Tulsa County District 2 Commissioner Karen Keith had for years lobbied for levee improvements, and now the scene was set for the old structure to grab the focus of hundreds of volunteers, especially people who owned property behind it, as well as the attention of local and federal officials.

Its every weakness — and its strengths — would soon be tested and revealed.

Kilpatrick’s story of the flood fight plays out like a 21-day siege. A year later the levee headquarters building still is surrounded by walls of sun-bleached sandbags he jokingly calls his “security blanket.”

“The duration was the thing,” he said. “The 1986 flood, people don’t remember, it was about nine hours from peak flow to the bottom. This thing lasted and lasted, and it was like a game of attrition. I’m glad we had a plan, or four days in we would have lost it. There was no way we could have kept up with all the mitigation work.”

Six people, the standard levee crew, worked nonstop the first few days of the flood. At highest river flow, the peak effort took 200 National Guard members on rotations to cover 24 hours, with volunteer help from Tulsa and Sand Springs police, fire and sheriff's departments, and the Oklahoma Department of Transportation and Oklahoma State Parks, as well as community volunteers, he said.

“It was a massive logistics fiasco at first, but a couple days in with the National Guard it all came together. They just needed to learn what to do in a flood fight: the implementation, how to build a ring dike, and then patrol and what to look for,” he said. “We had Chinooks and Blackhawk helicopters, drones — it is amazing what you can do with that many people concentrated on one goal.”

Every time the river flow increased, water pressures increased and all the sandbags and early mitigations needed new reinforcement in addition to anything new that popped up, he said.

The plan to start early and call in the troops worked and will remain unchanged for now, Kilpatrick said.

“Now we know the areas where we had major seepage. We know those areas are still there and what areas to bird-dog first,” he said. “Out of seven pump stations only one was functional, but we had a plan for bringing in auxiliary pumps with our antiquated 1945 pumps.”

County crews have completed a host of repairs along the dikes, but larger efforts are booked for later this summer, and a long-term upgrade remains on the horizon.

The first repairs to bring the levees back to original condition after the flood will come in two phases with about $8 million in federal dollars, a portion of Corps funding issued nationally following widespread disasters in 2019.

Those include fixes to 13 erosion sites and repairing a concrete flood wall at 65th Street and Charles Page Boulevard, followed by replacement of the levee’s antiquated pumps at a later date, according to Dawn Rice, Tulsa District U.S. Army Corps project manager.

The erosion and flood wall work is out for bid now, and work should begin on those projects this summer, she said.

“The erosion sites and the flood wall come first because those are highly critical in case of flooding,” she said.

More cleaning and investigation of the old pump houses is required to determine what modern equipment will be most compatible with the existing pump houses and future infrastructure, she said.

Future long-term upgrades to the infrastructure include upgraded pumps and added and improved berms along the levees on the side opposite the river as part of upgraded and improved toe drains and retention ponds to collect the floodwater that naturally seeps through the levees during these events and pump it back into the river.

Those improvements were part of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers feasibility study for repairs, which actually commenced prior to the flood event.

It was booked on a three-year timeline with a $3 million budget. The flood changed that, and it was expedited.

“We cut the schedule in half, less than half, and cut the budget by 30%,” said Bryan Taylor, civil works project manager for the Tulsa District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “It’s definitely the fastest ever for the Corps of Engineers in the nation. We had an amazing team on this. It was a huge effort but we were able to complete it in record time.”

With the project design and feasibility study completed in 16 months, now it is up to Congress. U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe was one of many who paid close attention to the levees during the flood and the improvements plan. Despite government attention now focused on the coronavirus pandemic, the levee project should continue to move forward, he said.

“Right now we’re in a good place in terms of the next steps for the levees,” he stated via email. “(The U.S. Army Corps Chief of Engineers’) report is signed, so preconstruction phases can begin with any remaining funds from the feasibility study, but we do need to line up funds for the entirety of the project. I won’t let Congress lose sight of the importance of funding the levee modernization and repair. Last year the levees were tested in the flooding, and we saw the risk the 70-year-old levees posed to the thousands of families and businesses they protect more plainly than ever before. As the FY21 funding process for the Corps moves this year, I’m going to be fighting that whole time to make sure the levees are included.”


Gallery: Aerial views of flooding along the Arkansas River, Skiatook and Broken Arrow

Kelly Bostian 918-581-8357

kelly.bostian@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @KellyBostian

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