TULSA Thousands of Tulsa County residents, their belongings hastily packed into pickup trucks, rental trucks and trailers, fled for higher ground Saturday as the U.S. Corps of Engineers released a record flood into the Arkansas River.
Throughout the day Saturday, the Corps steadily increased releases from the Keystone Dam west of here. By 4:30 p.m., 300,000 cubic feet of water per second (CFS) was roaring through the floodgates.
At that rate, Corps officials said, the Arkansas River would reach record flood levels from the Keystone Dam to Muskogee. That flooding was not expected to reach Tulsa until late Saturday.
No serious injuries or deaths had resulted from Saturday's flooding, said Mike Baker, press spokesman at the Civil Defense command post in Tulsa. Officials were hoping that the hours of advance warning would prevent any deaths or injuries.
Tulsa's Civil Defense office began sounding the city's flood-alert sirens along the Arkansas River at 5:30 a.m. Saturday. At 7 a.m., officials downstream from Tulsa in Jenks and Bixby began urging residents in those towns to evacuate. By late afternoon, mandatory evacuation orders had been issued in both Jenks and Bixby.
Jenks evacuees were directed south, to Okmulgee. A Red Cross shelter in Okmulgee quickly filled up, and the Salvation Army opened a backup shelter in Glenpool. By Saturday afternoon, the Red Cross had put 17 shelters into operation from Sand Springs to Bixby.
Residents of the Bixby Manor nursing home were transferred Saturday morning to a home on higher ground in Tulsa. Plans were being made early Saturday evening to move residents from the University Village retirement center into the adjoining City of Faith hospital.
Disaster officials were distressed to learn Saturday afternoon that some evacuees were moving back into their homes on the river's west bank, and emphasized that the situation remained extremely dangerous.
No one knew just how high the Arkansas River would reach. By 4:30 p.m., the river had begun to spill onto Riverside Drive in Tulsa and was rising rapidly. The torrent was buffeting the pedestrian deck of the old railroad bridge at 31st Street.
Friday night, Tulsa emergency officials had prepared maps predicting what neighborhoods the Arkansas would flood at a 300,000-CFS flow.
Saturday afternoon, officials were preparing new maps, projecting floods for a 350,000-CFS flow and a 480,000-CFS flow.
The Corps had not officially announced plans to increase flows past 300,000 CFS. But Carroll Scoggins, hydrology chief for the Corps' Tulsa district office, said measurements showed the lake was taking in 400,000 cubic feet of water per second from the Arkansas and Cimarron rivers.
Inflow was not expected to peak until late Sunday. Corps officials said they were trying to move as much water as possible out of the reservoir before the peak flows hit the lake.
Scoggins said the Corps is trying to keep the lake level from reaching the top of the dam. If the lake rises to the top of the dam, he said, the Corps would have to begin releasing water at the same rate it is entering the reservoir.
He said the lake was at 753.1 feet Saturday, 17.9 feet below the top of the dam.
Hydrologists' flow measurements on the Cimarron were hampered Saturday morning when floating debris knocked out a transmitter on a measurement station at Perkins.
Four U.S. Geological Survey workers, Darryl White, Royce Johnson, Darrel Walters and David Heimann, were flown by helicopter to the Perkins station, where they took turns wading into the river to read data from the gauge. The men gave the readings to Corps worker Stan Hensler, who relayed them by telephone to Tulsa.
Paul Strizek, assistant to City Street Commissioner J.D. Metcalfe, said the 300,000-CFS flow rate would flood several hundrd homes and several hundred businesses between on both the west and east banks of the Arkansas.
Officials said it would probably take three to four days for floodwaters to recede enough to allow evacuees to return to their homes.
One of the Tulsa neighborhoods facing the greatest risk was the Brookside district, a fashionable area which extends from 21st Street to 51st Street between the river and Peoria Avenue.
Three-hundred-forty Army National Guard troops and 90 Air National Guardsmen were deployed in Tulsa to help with evacuation, rescue and security.
National Guardsmen and police officers were posted at all entrances into the Brookside neighborhood, trying to stem the flood of sightseers that milled through the district.
Evacuations began late Friday night, and so did the rubbernecking.
"It was a circus all night long, with cars bumper to bumper," said Lorene Dykes, a resident of the Pythian Manor apartments, 1700 Riverside Drive.
"There were several people sitting around drinking beer and watching the river."
But for every sightseer hampering evacuations, there seemed to be a dozen people ready to pitch in and help. Local radio stations were flooded with calls from listeners offering food, shelter and transportation for flood victims.
Hundreds of volunteers turned out at sandbagging centers organized by city officials. Brigades erected sandbag walls along Riverside Drive, while Brookside homeowners took sandbags to fortify their residences.
Early Saturday afternoon, the heavy plastic sandbags began to run short. At 4 p.m., 200,000 sandbags arrived from Sherman, Texas.
Metcalfe said street workers were expecting more sandbags Saturday night from Kansas City.
Throughout Saturday, businessmen along Peoria Avenue stacked sandbags at their storefronts, while vehicles laden with furniture and appliances crowded the street.
Bill Thompson, operations manager of the Sun Oil Co. Tulsa refinery, said the firm closed down most of the refinery at noon Saturday and sent most of its 600 employees home.
He said steps were being taken to prevent fuel and oil spills at the refinery, which sits on the west bank of the Arkansas near 17th Street.
Renee Dotson, assistant accounting manager for the Oklahoma Natural Gas Co., said ONG workers had shut off gas service to between 2,000 and 4,000 customers between the Keystone Dam and Bixby. She said the gas would remain cut off until the flood recedes.
The Public Service Co. of Oklahoma warned evacuees to shut off their main circuit breakers to prevent electrical shocks and electrical fires.
Civil Defense workers warned residents in flooded areas to beware of the poisonous snakes that were moving to higher ground ahead of the rising water.
U.S. Rep. James R. Jones, D-Tulsa, after flying over his congressional district Saturday, said "very preliminary" estimates placed damage from the past week's flooding at $140 million.
Jones said he had met with Lt. Gov. Spencer Bernard Saturday, and that state officials would meet Monday to consider declaring the state's flood-ravaged sectors a disaster area.
Scoggins, from the Corps of Engineers, described last week's flooding as the largest in the history of Keystone Reservoir, which was finished in 1961.
He said the dam's previous record discharge was 105,000 cubic feet per second in 1974. BIOG: NAME:Archive ID: 283511