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A week of relentless rain is terrorizing Oklahoma, swallowing homes and sounding flood sirens

Flooding along the Arkansas River in Tulsa on May 22. (Tom Gilbert/Tulsa World/AP) (Tomgilberttulsaworld/AP)
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If you’ve tuned into an evening newscast lately, odds are you’ve seen dozens of tornadoes that have been spinning up in the Great Plains and Midwest. But there’s an even greater threat terrorizing the middle of the country: life-threatening flooding.

It has been more than a week with relentless rains targeting the Interstate 44 corridor. The hardest-hit area has been northeast Oklahoma into extreme southwest Missouri, particularly the 110-mile stretch from Tulsa to Joplin. The town of Talala, Okla., has seen 12.31 inches of rain in the past week, more than doubling its average May rainfall of about 5.5 inches. Talala’s rainfall since January is 31.4 inches, an inch more than what it picked up in all of 2018.

Other locations in Oklahoma also have seen weekly rain totals approaching a foot. Nearby Vinita is at 11.88 inches, while Miami and Wynona have recorded 11.88 and 11.81 inches, respectively.

A whopping 47 flash flood warnings have been issued by National Weather Service offices across Oklahoma since Monday. Among them was a dire “flash flood emergency” for Tulsa, hoisted at 11:44 p.m. Monday, as thunderstorms brought life-threatening inundations and a swarm of nocturnal tornadoes. The alert reported “numerous closed roadways, water rescues and homes being evacuated” after more than half a foot of rain came down.

An EF-1 tornado formed near the Tulsa International Airport about 6:30 a.m. Tuesday. On Thursday, the sirens in Tulsa sounded again — every half-hour — to alert residents about the perils of flooding along the Arkansas River.

Thursday was the first time the river hit a flood stage of 22 feet in downtown Tulsa since Oct. 5, 1986. Before that, it hadn’t happened since, coincidentally, Oct. 5, 1959.

In 12 hours Tuesday, the river rose from 11 feet to 18 feet, and has remained at its current 22 feet since Thursday morning. According to data from the National Weather Service’s River Forecast Center, water levels look to remain at or above major flood stage through at least Tuesday.

In Muskogee, Okla., which sits along the river, efforts are underway Friday to protect the USS Batfish, a World War II submarine, which is normally parked on dry land alongside the river but is now in the water.

One of the Arkansas River’s tributaries, the Cimarron River, runs from the Oklahoma Panhandle, near Colorado, to just west of Tulsa. Television cameras were rolling Wednesday as the river swallowed a home, sweeping it downstream in the swiftly raging current.

The destructive flooding has prompted evacuations, including one of an entire Oklahoma town.

Webbers Falls, a community of about 600 people north of Interstate 40 in eastern Oklahoma, was forced to evacuate Wednesday evening. In an ominous message on the town’s Facebook page, administrators warned that “if you choose to stay we advise you write your name and personal information on your arm in [permanent] marker.” Fears rose Thursday when a pair of upstream barges broke loose and struck the dam before sinking. Despite initial concerns, it was later found that the dam sustained “minimal” damage.

Flooding isn’t relegated to northeast Oklahoma. It’s been wet the past week just about everywhere in the Sooner State. Of the 121 observing stations dotting each county in the state as part of a weather-monitoring “Mesonet,” only three have reported less than one inch of rain since last weekend.

At the Oklahoma-Arkansas border, the Arkansas River is forecast to reach a record crest this weekend near Fort Smith, Ark., three feet above the previous record. “Near catastrophic flooding” is expected at these levels, and a disaster has been declared for the region.

What has been the culprit for all this rain? Blame an active jet stream pattern. A constant conveyor belt of moisture-rich air from the Gulf of Mexico has been streaming northward, fueling constant barrages of shower and thunderstorm activity each day. It has presented a severe weather threat during the daytime, transitioning to a flooding threat almost every evening as the storms grow together and merge.

The ground is already saturated, with much of Oklahoma in the 99th percentile for soil moisture. And according to the Weather Prediction Center, Friday and Saturday will bring a moderate risk of excessive rainfall.

Historically, violent storms and soaking rains tend to wind down during the second week of June as a more typical summertime pattern becomes established. But until then, there’s no end in sight.