Old Levees Tested Yet Again

Jun 2, 2019
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Floodwaters are receding in Tulsa, Okla., and 70-year-old levees that protect most of the town held. But as NPR's Frank Morris reports, now Tulsa and other communities flooded this year face a reckoning about how to shore up defenses before the next flood.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: After a tense, weeklong standoff between the raging Arkansas River and Tulsa's levees, people like Joe Martin, who live in houses sheltered by those levees, can relax.

JOE MARTIN: I was prepared to do my interview, you know - I didn't see it coming. You know, that's the typical Okie thing, you know? I had no idea - even though there's a 20-foot sign at the end of the street down there saying, evacuate, please.

MORRIS: Martin may have been in more danger than he realized. Todd Kilpatrick, the levee commissioner in Tulsa, says it was touch and go for days.

TODD KILPATRICK: We were very lucky to have survived this. It should be a wake-up call. It really should because it could've went the other way real quick.

MORRIS: And by the other way, Kilpatrick is talking about levees failing with possible deadly consequences. The federal government built Tulsa's levees during World War II, chiefly to protect the vital petroleum industry here. Kilpatrick says they now shield upwards of 10,000 residents and $2 billion worth of infrastructure. Saving those levees during this round of flooding, he says, would've been impossible without National Guard troops, his staff, road crews and the Army Corps of Engineers working around the clock, attacking leaks with helicopters, backhoes and sandbags.

KILPATRICK: We've got a seventy-year-old levee that's been in need of rehabilitation for years now, and we've known that. We need to rebuild this levee system.

MORRIS: You see that - maintenance issues all along this levee. For instance, I'm standing at a pump station - concrete box with rusty metal vents on top - that isn't working. So the National Guard has brought in four diesel pumps, and they're running water from a neighborhood that would otherwise be flooding back into the river.

KAREN KEITH: I mean, she's 70 years old. She needs some new technology, and I'll be so happy when we get that done.

MORRIS: Karen Keith, a local county commissioner, has called for an overhaul of the levees for years. She says the county would prefer to build them higher, anchored by solid concrete walls. That's the most expensive option - well over a hundred million dollars, with federal taxpayers picking up most of the cost. Cheaper options involve fixing pump stations and wells that relieve pressure on the levees during floods. The Army Corps of Engineers is doing a feasibility study, but it might take six years before work begins. Keith says it's time to get busy now, and not just in Tulsa.

KEITH: You see these levees all across the country, and they're having similar issues - all of them - 'cause they were all built about the same time.

MORRIS: But there is a radically different approach to flood control, and it is well-represented right here in Tulsa.

RON FLANAGAN: A levee is a disaster waiting to happen, and it's just a question of time until that levee is going to fail.

MORRIS: Ron Flanagan designed a huge and controversial flood control project here after a deadly flood in 1984. The city bought and tore down 500 flood-prone houses along one creek alone. They built an expansive park that, despite weeks of torrential rain, did not flood. Flanagan says Tulsa should take the same approach now along the Arkansas River.

FLANAGAN: If we've got money to spend, why not spend it buying those houses out and turning that into flood plain open space, rather than putting hundreds of millions of dollars into repairing levees that are protecting things that maybe shouldn't even be there to begin with?

MORRIS: That's the question cropping up all along major waterways in the middle of the country in the wake of this spring's catastrophic flooding. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Tulsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.