Runaway barges smash into Oklahoma dam after officials order evacuations and shut down roads

Posted at 12:17 PM, May 23, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-23 14:17:39-04

Thought secured just hours earlier, two runaway barges broke loose Thursday on the Arkansas River, crashed into a dam in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and sank.

Police shut down major thoroughfares and ordered evacuations in the area after the barges came unmoored and threatened to crash through an Interstate 40 bridge and a dam on the bloated Arkansas River.

But just after 5 a.m. (6 a.m. ET) Thursday, the Sequoyah County Sheriff’s Office said the barges were found several miles from Webbers Falls, one of the towns ordered to evacuate.

“They are still tied together and are currently stationary & stuck on a rock jetty, operators are working to secure them at that location,” the sheriff’s office said at the time.

The barges broke loose around noon, and video from CNN affiliate KFOR showed the vessels crashing into Webbers Fall Lock & Dam in Muskogee. Water inundated the boats, and they promptly sank.

The dam appeared to hold.

Interstate 40 and US 64 will remain shut down until the situation is safe, the sheriff’s office said.

Webbers Falls, a town of 600 people about 75 miles southeast of Tulsa, warned residents of the “life-threatening situation” and ordered them to evacuate immediately Wednesday night.

“If you choose to stay we advise you write your name and personal information on your arm in permanent marker. Please be safe!” the warning read.

The state Department of Health said 47 residents were relocated from a nursing home in Gore, just outside Webbers Falls.

Evacuations were also ordered in LeFlore County, Blackwell, Fort Gibson and Muskogee, and the Oklahoma Highway Patrol rescued 75 people from rising waters in Skiatook, north of Tulsa.

A state of emergency was declared in 66 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties.

At least one person drowned after driving around a barricade in Perkins, about 65 miles west of Tulsa, the city’s emergency management office said.

Forty-four people in the state were taken to hospitals to be treated for injuries, the Oklahoma Department of Health said.

Nasty weather also slammed Jay, a small city fewer than 20 miles from the Arkansas and Missouri borders. After a tornado touched down in the area, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol said troopers found several homes destroyed.

All residents were accounted for, and there are no reports of injuries, the highway patrol said.

Sixteen tornadoes touched down Wednesday in Oklahoma, the National Weather Service reported.

Areas in the northeast portion of the state have seen more than 10 inches of rainfall in the last three days, and flash flood warnings for the northwestern part of the state continued into Thursday morning.

After the deluges, the fire department in Broken Arrow, southeast of Tulsa, posted videos of rescuers pulling people from floodwaters. One man was found clinging to a fencepost, and firefighters used a rope to take him a flotation device and pull him to safety, CNN affiliate KOKI reported.

Police in Tulsa asked residents in neighborhoods near Keystone Dam to evacuate in case the area floods due to the planned release of water.

The US Army Corps of Engineers is releasing 215,000 cubic feet of water per second from the dam at Keystone Lake, a reservoir on the Arkansas and Cimarron rivers, because the water is 29 feet above its normal level. The dam is about 20 miles from Tulsa.

The rate of 215,000 cubic feet per second is the minimum that officials can release to keep the reservoir from topping its floodgates, Mayor G.T. Bynum said. If the floodgates don’t work, the dam could fail, Bynum said.