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Tulsa Braces For More Severe Storms, Mayor Bynum Says


Residents of some neighborhoods in Tulsa, Okla., received a warning - be prepared to evacuate if the levees don't hold. Some parts of the city are already flooded, with parking garages and streets and large buildings filling with water. Massive storms have filled the Arkansas River, and Tulsa's levees have not held back this much water in decades. We haven't even mentioned Oklahoma's tornadoes. Days ago, Mayor G.T. Bynum of Tulsa shared a photo on social media. It showed Oklahoma's governor visiting the city's emergency operations center and leading people with bowed heads in prayer. Mayor Bynum is on the line from Tulsa.

Good morning, sir.

GT BYNUM: Good morning.

INSKEEP: You must get up first thing in the morning and ask how the levees are doing.

BYNUM: That is the first thing that I ask our team every morning when I see them.

INSKEEP: So what have you been hearing?

BYNUM: Overnight, they continue to operate the way they were designed. We're very fortunate. These are 70-year-old-plus earthen levees that were constructed in the '40s. And they have - while they've had higher water levels on them, that high-water level was for about 12 hours. We are looking at probably a week to 10 days of levels at this - this levee system has just never been tested the way it is right now.

INSKEEP: Because of the sheer extent - the amount of water that's having to be released from dams upstream, the amount of water that's raining and everything else.

BYNUM: That's exactly right.

INSKEEP: Although, we should mention some parts of your city have not been protected, right?

BYNUM: That's correct. This is the area west of downtown Tulsa in lower-lying areas. There are areas of higher elevation that don't have levees that are - we have a river park system that runs through our city that serves as a kind of buffer, if you will, for elevating water levels. And that's taking the brunt through much of our city of these increased water levels.

INSKEEP: How much damage is there, so far as you can tell?

BYNUM: Well, you really can't - we really won't know until the water goes back down. We've been very fortunate that, until recently, we really didn't have any structures inside the city of Tulsa damaged and, thankfully, not many injuries. We've had two people - two that we assume, at this point, fatalities. We don't know how they ended up in the river, but we haven't been able to find them. But overall, the system was designed to protect people from that river. And it's working the way it's supposed to in that regard.

INSKEEP: Mayor, I'm really interested to hear you talk about the design of the city - to try to be resilient in a situation like this. You mentioned the levees. You mentioned strategically located and designed parks that are designed to absorb water. There's a lot of talk elsewhere in today's program here about preparations for disaster as they become more common with climate change. People are asking if Paradise, Calif., could've been more properly prepared for fire, for example, or Puerto Rico for hurricanes.

Leading up to this crisis, did Tulsa have all of the resources that it needed?

BYNUM: We have spent decades preparing for this event, and so as the mayor who happens to be in office at this time, I'm just filled with gratitude. Tulsa, being next to a river, it was not unaccustomed to flooding. But you had generations of leaders in this community - one who saw that the levees were built, two that saw that we built a river park system along our river corridor that could absorb this flow. And it also is required in our building code that anything built along the river has to be one foot above the 100-year flood plain.

The problem is we're into that now. And so it would be a lot worse if we didn't have the leadership that we had in this community for decades to prepare for this moment. But the water continues to rise, and we have storms on the horizon.

INSKEEP: Yeah, so we can hope, but we don't know. We can hope that we're not talking to you about a major disaster in a few days. What do you need from the state and federal government beyond anything you may already be getting?

BYNUM: Well, I will say the support that we've received from the state and federal governments has just been extraordinary. As you mentioned, our governor, Kevin Stitt - he's been in our emergency operations center with us. President Trump was very quick to approve our emergency declarations so FEMA could assist us. We have National Guard personnel out walking those levees 24 hours a day to monitor their status, so the support we're receiving is just outstanding. And it's great to see everyone pulling together to protect the lives of the people in our community.

INSKEEP: Well, Mayor Bynum, maybe we'll check in with you again in a few days if you don't mind.

BYNUM: Thank you. That'd be great.

INSKEEP: Mayor G.T. Bynum spoke with us from Tulsa, Okla.

Thanks so much.

BYNUM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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