Flooding in the Arkansas River remained relentless Thursday — but two barges torn loose by the rushing waters concluded their journey by hitting Lock and Dam 16 near Webbers Falls.
“The mooring structures at the port and the anchors in the Grand River are underwater. Fortunately, we have tow boats holding barges together,” Port of Muskogee Director Scott Robinson said Wednesday before swift currents swept the barges downstream a few hours later.
Those barges, Robinson said, were loaded with phosphates, chemical compounds containing phosphorus that are used as a fertilizer. The cargo sank with the barges at about noon Thursday “within a minute or two of hitting the dam" when they collided with that structure.
There was some hope about an hour before the barges sank the collision could be prevented. Robinson said there was some hope Thursday morning there would be “an opportunity to lasso the barges,” which had stalled overnight upstream from the dam. The barges were dislodged and made it around the bend before those efforts were undertaken and the barges collided with the dam downstream from Brewers Bend Public Use Area.
Robinson said the barges were under the “care, custody and control, a very loose term at this point” of Oakley’s Terminal Muskogee. The company oversees the handling of materials at the Port of Muskogee and a number of others along the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System.
"They are doing everything humanly possible in the most difficult circumstances,” Robinson said about the Oakley’s team.
Those circumstances included what appeared will be conditions that set new modern records for flooding along the navigation channel.
The collapse and sinking of the barges enabled Oklahoma Highway Patrol to reopen a closed Interstate 40 bridge downstream from Lock and Dam 16, where they initially feared the barges would strike if they made it past the dam.
The runaway barges were just one of several events brought on by the rising waters Thursday.
Fort Gibson, Okay, and Braggs all lost power as the water arrived in an Oklahoma Gas and Electric substation in the company's Muskogee plant. Over 3,000 residents in Fort Gibson alone are without power heading into Thursday evening, according to OG&E's outage tracker.
A release from Muskogee County District 1 Commissioner Ken Doke states that power could remain cut off until flooding recedes.
"In the meantime, our emergency response teams are working on an interim solution. Updates will be provided as new information becomes available," Doke wrote.
Fort Gibson Police Chief Donnie Yarbrough said police have barricaded flooded roads and other areas, including railroad crossings.
"The gravel under the railroad ties are washing out and water is going over the tracks," he said. "Two of the railroad trestles have washed out on the Union Pacific site."
He said shelters were set up at First Baptist Church and Fort Gibson Church of Christ.
“Flows and elevations” recorded Thursday for the Arkansas River at the Port of Muskogee reached “historic levels” and are expected to increase until the river crests, said Robinson.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported at 6 p.m. Thursday the Port of Muskogee gauge showed river levels at 42.53 feet, nearly three feet higher than what was considered the flood of record set in 1986. Water was flowing past the gauge at a rate of 506,999 cfs — maximum flows recorded in 1986 were reported at about 375,000 cfs.
Robinson said he learned during a conference with Corps officials Thursday afternoon the Arkansas River could rise to 44.4 feet before it begins to recede. The river is expected to crest shortly after midnight Friday and then gradually begin to fall during the course of the next few days.
Robinson said access to the Port of Muskogee and the River Center at Three Forks Harbor is by boat only.
“At the River Center, river elevations are currently below the finished floor elevations but may not be before this is over,” Robinson said. “We’ll be boating in tomorrow morning to assess the situation."
Muskogee County Emergency Management Director Jeff Smith said the eventual crest of the flood was "still volatile."
"This will be probably be in major flood stage for some time now. It will probably be into next week before we start seeing significant losses in water elevation," Smith said. "In the next week we’ll still be dealing with some water. How much water is still unclear depending on how much rain we get up north and how much rain we get here. It’s still unclear how much higher or how much lower it’ll be."
Smith said rains as far away as Kansas and Missouri, a state heavy facing storms of its own, could affect Muskogee's watershed.
"Whenever they do the forecast they do the forecast for 18 hours out," Smith said. "That’s kind of how dynamic it is."