Flooding Leads to Evacuations in Oklahoma and Arkansas

Homes are flooded on the Arkansas River in Tulsa, Okla., on Friday, May 24, 2019. The threat of potentially devastating flooding continued Friday along the Arkansas River from Tulsa into western Arkansas. (Tom Gilbert/Tulsa World via AP)

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 Hotel and Casino, 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, they 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.”

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.

Downriver in northwestern Arkansas, between 100 and 200 residents had already evacuated their homes in the state’s second-largest city of Fort Smith, which is about 100 miles (160 kilometers) southeast of Tulsa. Karen Santos, a spokeswoman for the city of roughly 80,000 people, said at least one house along the river had been completely submerged.

Laurie Driver, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers, said the increased release of floodwater from upriver dams would affect Arkansas’ levee systems, which also haven’t been tested for as much water as is expected.