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How Oklahoma Is Coping With Devastating Floods Across The State


As we just heard, Oklahoma is already enduring catastrophic floods. It's counting on a system of levees to keep things from getting any worse. But those levees are decades old, and the floods are pushing them to their limits. Colonel Christopher Hussin commands the Tulsa district of the Army Corps of Engineers. He joins us now. Welcome to the program.


CORNISH: For people who can't see it, can you describe what things look like right now and some - the actions the Corps is taking on a daily basis to address it?

HUSSIN: You know, sometimes it is hard to describe. You know, you're driving down roads that were normally - there might be 50 or a hundred yards to the river. Suddenly, the river is, you know, 10 or 15 yards from where your car is or, you know, where you typically are running for physical training is now underwater.

And in terms of the levees themselves, when you walk the levees, you know, typically, where the water might be 20, 25 feet away from the top of the levee, maybe now it's within five or six feet. So when you see what, you know, a couple hundred thousand cubic feet per second of water looks like rolling down the Arkansas River and it's within feet of the bridges, whether they're pedestrian or vehicular, you know, sometime there used to be 20 feet of clearance, it's pretty awe-inspiring.

CORNISH: What are you doing to shore up the levees themselves? And are you inviting residents to help?

HUSSIN: Really, what we're looking at now is quick response-type actions - things like, you know, sandbags, sand and gravel filters that'll help increase the pressure and keep water from seeping through the structure itself. We've got National Guardsmen that have been mobilized and are on the levee 24 hours a day, along with our engineers. You've got local first responders, police, firemen doing the same.

In terms of the actual community members themselves, we really aren't having members of the public out there, other than the mobilized guardsmen actually helping with the effort. In fact, some of the local officials are really sort of encouraging local residents to stay away from areas that are experiencing any sort of issues with the levees. They want to try to minimize any sort of impacts that may occur for the public at large.

CORNISH: So we've seen reporting about the last time this district saw this kind of flooding. It was back in 1986. I think the levees then had to hold up something like 12 hours. We're way past that now. So how should we be thinking about whether or not these levees are strong enough?

HUSSIN: Sure. So back in 1986, we were releasing a little over 300,000 cubic feet per second. And I know that's a number that's tough to sort of comprehend. So I think the best way it was explained to me - and this is - I kind of like this analogy - is picture 300,000 basketballs going through the dam every second. And so back then, it was 307,000 basketballs, if you will. And now we're doing 275,000.

So - but you're right. We've had this load on the levees for four or five days now, so it's a much longer exposure. And back in 1986, they did experience a breach of the levee at one particular point that was quickly responded to in - through great teamwork with the Corps and the local levee and first responders. So I wouldn't say that there's any threat or any imminent threat to a breach. You know, we're on the spot 24 hours a day, trying to look for indicators. And when we see them, we're, you know, responding almost immediately.

CORNISH: And to be clear, before I let you go, right now, your assessment is that you're not expecting a breach of the levee or of the dam.

HUSSIN: That's absolutely correct. We see - you know, I've got just an amazing group of professional engineers out there every day working with the local community, and we see nothing that would lead us to believe that a breach is imminent, either of the levees or of our own infrastructure.

CORNISH: Colonel Christopher Hussin is from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Thank you for speaking with us.

HUSSIN: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.