Runaway barges threaten Oklahoma dam in another day of Midwest storms

OKLAHOMA CITY — Two barges broke loose and floated swiftly down the swollen Arkansas River in eastern Oklahoma on Wednesday, spreading alarm downstream as they threatened to hit a dam.

The emergency was the latest consequence of storms and torrential rains that have ravaged the Midwest, from Texas through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Illinois.

Authorities urged residents of several small towns in Oklahoma and Kansas to leave their homes as rivers and streams rose.

The Arkansas River town of Webbers Falls, Oklahoma, was one such town. Town officials ordered a mandatory evacuation Wednesday afternoon because of the river’s rising level.

But Wednesday evening, a posting on the town’s official Facebook page sounded the alarm about the runaway barges for its 600 residents: “Evacuate Webbers Falls immediately. The barges are loose and has the potential to hit the lock and dam 16. If the dam breaks, it will be catastrophic!! Leave now!!”

There was no word by midnight Wednesday where the barges were on the river, but local television stations showing live video of the river and the lock and dam said they had not yet arrived.

For the third consecutive day, dangerous storms prompted numerous tornado warnings and reports of twisters touching down, most in Missouri and Oklahoma.

The National Weather Service said it had received 22 reports of tornadoes by late Wednesday evening, although some of those could be duplicate reporting of the same twister.

One tornado skirted just a few miles north of Joplin, Missouri, on the eighth anniversary of a catastrophic tornado that killed 161 people in the city.

The tornado caused some damage in the town of Carl Junction, about 4 miles north of the Joplin airport.

The Arkansas River was approaching historic highs, while the already high Missouri and Mississippi Rivers were again rising after a multi-day stretch of storms that produced dozens of tornadoes.

Forecasters predicted parts of Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas could see more severe weather Wednesday night into Thursday.

“The biggest concern is more rain,” Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt said during a news conference after an aerial tour with Tulsa Mayor G.W. Bynum and other officials Wednesday morning.

The deluge inundated roadways, closing highways in 22 Oklahoma counties and 17 Kansas counties, along with more than 330 Missouri roads.

Amtrak suspended train service Wednesday and Thursday along a route between St. Louis and Kansas City because of congestion and flood-related delays.

The Arkansas River, which was just above 37 feet, or 9 feet above flood stage, at Muskogee, Oklahoma, was expected to eventually reach 43.5 feet.

Officials encouraged residents in several communities along the river to leave their homes.

But Bynum, Tulsa’s mayor, said his city of more than 400,000 people was safe so far.

“The levee system is working the way it’s supposed to right now,” he said.

Near Crescent, about 34 miles north of Oklahoma City, erosion left several homes hanging over the swollen Cimarron River.

One unoccupied home rolled into the river Tuesday, and authorities say others could collapse.

More than 9 inches of rain has fallen since Sunday in parts of Oklahoma after an already rainy spring.

“Any rainfall we get just continues to saturate the soils that are already saturated. Especially rivers and streams,” said Oklahoma State Climatologist Gary McManus.

“There is simply nowhere for this water to go” as it flows downstream from Kansas, according to McManus.

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