NewsFlooding in the Heartland: A Year Later

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What it took to save the levees

Levee area
Posted at 3:27 PM, May 20, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-20 18:36:44-04

TULSA, Okla. — Tulsa County's 75-year-old levee system was put to the test for three weeks straight in 2019, when it endured three feet of rushing floodwater.

The levees held firm, but keeping them intact was no small feat.

Levee Commissioner M. Todd Kilpatrick called the effort "herculean," as the Army Corps of Engineers, National Guard, and countless volunteers worked to keep the levees together.

"The weak points were pretty much everywhere,” Kilpatrick said. "There would have been damage 10-fold, at least.”

From the moment the levees soaked with floodwaters, they were watched from the ground, and the air. Drones flew overhead, and the National Guard walked the levees. Certain areas were reinforced with dirt and sand, and monitored around the clock.

Thousands of neighbors and $2 billion of infrastructure were at risk for 21 days straight. The floodwater pressed against the levees, and retaining pools filled up as all 20 pumps failed.

The pumps' job is to ensure water doesn't soak the levees from both sides. They were tested before the event and worked, but they had not been updated in 75 years.

"We were relying on 1945 technology, and they were all operable when we started the battle with that flood," Kilpatrick said. "You can imagine a 1945 vehicle and you’re trying to run a race with it, it’s going to start breaking down, and that’s what they did.”

One year later, the county secured funding to fix them all, and are looking to bring each pump up to date by the end of the summer.

The new pumps are a step toward a totally new levee system, which could cost upward of $148 million. Local officials aim to complete the project in five years.

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