Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt declared the flooding in Muskogee "the worst in the state" during a news conference convened Friday afternoon to discuss the disastrous rise of the Arkansas River.
"I've been spending the afternoon here in Muskogee. I've taken an aerial tour to survey some of the damage," Stitt said. "I have to tell you, the Muskogee area is by far the worst in the state. I've never seen anything like it."
Stitt arrived in Muskogee following the signing of an executive order declaring a state of emergency in all 77 counties of Oklahoma.
"I'm cautioning all of our citizens to please stay tuned and listen to our emergency personnel," Stitt said. "Everybody needs to heed the instructions of those personnel."
Stitt was joined at the conference by a collection of community leaders from the local, county, state and federal level, such as U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin.
"Guys, this is catastrophic, our flow rates are at levels that we haven't seen before," Mullin said. "We're taking a very educated guess at the crest — we're probably estimating at the low point."
The Arkansas River had reached 44.5 feet at the Port of Muskogee gauge Friday afternoon when the news conference took place. The National Weather Service at Tulsa predicted it would rise another foot by 7 a.m. Saturday, when the river was expected crest at 45.5 feet.
"This is something we'll get through — we always do — it's called the Oklahoma Standard," Mullin said. "I believe we'll get through it, but let's make sure we get through it together."
City of Muskogee Emergency Management Director Tyler Evans said the improved projections for river levels alleviated earlier concerns about the municipal water treatment plant. Officials announced earlier in the day there was the possibility that facility could be shut down Saturday if floodwaters continued to rise according to projections provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"With the new data we've gathered from the (Corps of Engineers), we're only looking at another half-foot of the river levels rising in Muskogee," Evans said. "At that level, the water will have no impact on Muskogee's water facility. We have no intentions of shutting off Muskogee water plant."
Evans also attempted to assuage fears about electricity.
"Oklahoma Gas & Electric has assured us that if you have power now in Muskogee you will keep that electric," Evans said.
City Manager Mike Miller said water plant employees and Oklahoma National Guard members worked throughout the night Thursday building berms to protect the plant. Miller said when the guardsmen left, there was a consensus the plant was in good shape until the Corps revised its projections Friday morning and everybody scrambled again.
"Now the information from the Corps has changed again — Greg Riley's been out there and feels good about where we are, but we don't know what the river is going to do," Miller said about the Public Works director's assessment. "We are preparing for the worst and doing what we can to protect the plant."
Miller said there are employees at the water treatment plant "who have been out there for days, working like crazy to make sure we have water."
Riley said while it appears the water treatment plant will remain operational, "being prepared for the unexpected is not a bad thing." Riley also confirmed the city's wastewater treatment plant was inundated by Arkansas River flooding and inoperable, "but no backups should be expected."
Muskogee County commissioners declared a disaster earlier Friday, and authorized the use of up to $50,000 by the Muskogee County Emergency Management Office. District 3 Commissioner Kenny Payne said the move was proactive measure in anticipation of state and federal action.
"We don't know if we will spend a penny of it, but we don't want to get caught flat-footed where we can't buy something if we need it," Payne said. "The state has declared an emergency — they haven't declared a disaster, but they will — we just don't want to be handcuffed while we are waiting on them."
Payne said county emergency personnel were working Friday to ensure shelters had food and water. They also were considering the possibility of opening other shelters.
District 1 Commissioner Ken Doke took the opportunity during the news conference to thank the action team gathered to respond to the crisis.
"We like to think of this as we're one of the only teams in between the people and the water," Doke said. "We've been trying to move everyone out of harm's way."
Still, the commissioner said, the "catastrophic flooding" was not to be underestimated.
"These levels are unprecedented," Doke said.
Muskogee County District Attorney Orvil Loge cautioned later that during the aftermath of the flood looters who take advantage of the disaster would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
"I want to say if anybody thinks that during a time of crisis they can steal or loot or take advantage of the weak, those individuals will be prosecuted with that in mind," Loge said. "That in a time of weakness they took advantage of somebody, and we intend to prosecute them very strongly."
There have been no reports of looters yet, Loge said, but then again things had not yet progressed to their worst point.
"It's getting ready to get really bad, and there could be more people displaced from their valuables," Loge said. "I don't want anybody thinking they can take advantage of someone during a weak state."
The following road closures have been announced by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation as of Friday evening:
• All lanes of Interstate 40 and Oklahoma 100 are open over the Arkansas River near the Muskogee/Sequoyah County line. Drivers are urged to be alert to crews monitoring the river area and to use caution as traffic adjusts in these corridors. Travel is still discouraged in this area as flooding conditions continue to rapidly change.
• Oklahoma 10 is closed at Big Greenleaf Creek 3.5 miles south of Braggs.
• Oklahoma 10 is closed two miles east of the U.S. 62 junction near Fort Gibson.
• U.S. 62 is closed between Oklahoma 80 near Fort Gibson and Oklahoma 165 in Muskogee.
• Oklahoma 104 is closed at Coal Creek near Haskell.
• Southbound U.S. 69 is closed north of Muskogee at the Arkansas River.
• Oklahoma 16 is closed near the Muskogee Turnpike just north of Muskogee.
• Oklahoma 16 is closed northwest of Okay.
• Oklahoma 72 is closed from East 201st South to just north of the Arkansas River bridge near Coweta.