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With record rain, Oklahoma’s levee system is under extreme pressure

Severe weather is devastating the American Heartland. Spring storms have led to at least eight deaths in Oklahoma, which has been hit by tornadoes and record rain. With more precipitation expected, state officials are closely watching levee systems for signs of a potentially catastrophic failure. Judy Woodruff speaks by phone with Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt about managing the situation.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to our lead story, the severe weather devastating the heartland.

    Spring storms have led to at least six deaths so far in Oklahoma. It has been hit by tornadoes, and flooding there is nearing historic levels.

    I spoke by phone just a short time ago to Oklahoma's Governor Kevin Stitt.

    Governor Stitt, thank you very much for joining us.

    Tell us now where you have been in the state and what you have seen.

  • Gov. Kevin Stitt. R-Okla.:

    Well, we have been all over the state.

    I started — I have been touring Western Oklahoma and saw some of our farmers that have kind of had some devastation on the flood side. I have been — I toured El Reno yesterday that was the site of a deadly tornado.

    And I have been in Muskogee and then Tulsa, Oklahoma, where we're experiencing kind of record floods right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And with regard to Tulsa, we have seen that video. Is that a result of, as you say, record rain, or is it just an inadequate water management system? What's going on there?

  • Gov. Kevin Stitt:

    You know, it's record rain.

    The Keystone Dam, the Keystone Watershed, we take a lot of water from Kansas, so Kansas, Southern Kansas, Northeast Oklahoma has had just record rain over the last 30 days. About 11 of our 16 reservoirs are completely full.

    And right now, they're releasing 275,000 cubic feet a second of water, and so basically that's flooding a lot of Tulsa, South Tulsa, and on down into Muskogee, the Arkansas River. And now, I mean, all that flooding is going into Arkansas and starting to affect their state as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So how are you and the other officials in the state dealing with it?

  • Gov. Kevin Stitt:

    Well, you know, I have been on the phone with the head of FEMA, the secretary of the Army, and then I met with the three-star general with the Corps of Engineers in Tulsa this morning.

    And our biggest concern is our levee system. So the Corps and our city has done a great job over the last 50 years on our levee system, but with this much water and pressure on it, that's — the biggest concern is that we're going to have a levee failure. So we have evacuated some neighborhoods and we're just monitoring that very, very closely.

    I have got the National Guard out that is walking the levee system, helping monitoring that. We have got a town down south around Muskogee that actually evacuated because it was underwater. So Muskogee has been hit the hardest right now, and we're just really monitoring our levee situation, because, if they go, we could have some other neighborhoods also get flooded.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So what do you need? What do you and local officials need at this point?

  • Gov. Kevin Stitt:

    We need the rain to stop up north.

    There's more predictions of rain this afternoon in Northeast Oklahoma and also into Kansas, which would exasperate this problem and the inflows into these reservoirs. And then our Corps has no option but just to start increasing the release flows. So that's the problem. We're having record releases coming out of the dams.

    And that's just flooding rivers to historic levels.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How are you keeping people safe?

  • Gov. Kevin Stitt:

    You know, our local emergency management folks and our mayors have done a great job with our police and our fire of going out, not only rescuing certain neighbor — certain folks that have been flooded out.

    And I got a tour on the airboat, and we actually saw, it was unbelievable, literally two-story houses with just the very top of the roof sticking out. But they're doing a good job of actually keeping us up to date on what — the maps we're showing of citizens and the police going in, if we are seeing water, and getting people out ahead of time.

    So, we haven't had any levee breaks where you're going to have instant increase in water. It's just been a slow rise. So we have been very fortunate. We have — it could have been much worse. We have had eight storm-related deaths since April 30, and a couple of them were in the El Reno tornado.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Gov. Kevin Stitt:

    So the tornado and the flood stuff has just been — it's been a really tough couple weeks for our state.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Certainly, a really tough couple of weeks, and we certainly hope for the best and hope that the rain will let up.

    Governor Kevin Stitt, we thank you.

  • Gov. Kevin Stitt:

    Thank you so much.

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