Swift-water rescues from roadways in Okla. flood, but officials say it could have been worse

By Tim Talley, AP
Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Okla. flooding leads to dramatic rescues

OKLAHOMA CITY — Record-busting rainfall in Oklahoma led to a day of dramatic rescues from swift floodwaters, but officials and residents acknowledged the outcome could have been far worse.

No one had to be hospitalized Monday, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health. There was just one unconfirmed report of a death, in Lawton on Monday night. Stranded motorists climbed trees and waited for rescuers, including one crew whose boat sank and had to be saved themselves.

“We were lucky to get the people out of the high-water areas,” said Oklahoma City Fire Department Battalion Chief Tommy Iago. “The places we couldn’t walk them out, we used boats.”

Fire officials in Oklahoma City and the nearby suburb of Edmond launched more than 60 swift-water rescues after a barrage of thunderstorms dumped as much as 10 inches of rain in some areas in a matter of hours. More rain fell Monday night, and the National Weather Service said the 7.62 inches at Will Rogers International Airport in Oklahoma City topped the previous record of 7.53 inches set on Sept. 22, 1970.

Cynthia Banister said fire crews had to rescue a man clinging to a tree near her Edmond home after water topped his SUV.

“We’re very thankful. Just think of what happened in Arkansas recently,” Banister said, referring to flash flooding that killed 20 people at a campground. “It could have been much worse.”

One boat carrying rescuers in Oklahoma City sank just as it reached a 17-year-old girl, forcing the firefighters to take to treetops and await help themselves.

“This is the first time I’ve encountered anything close to this,” fire Lt. Joe Smith said. “It didn’t feel very good. I like to be in control of the action.”

The heaviest rainfall was reported across sections of northern Oklahoma City, forcing the closure of some roads and interstates. The torrential downpour sent creeks and rivers over their banks, and the raging currents ripped asphalt from roadways and blew manhole covers from pipes.

KSWO-TV in Lawton reported on its website that witnesses told police a taxi driver drowned Monday night while trying to push his car out of high water. Police and sheriff’s department dispatchers would not confirm the death, and a spokesman for Comanche County — about 80 miles southwest of Oklahoma City — did not return a call.

Betty Diehl was house-sitting at her daughter’s home in Oklahoma City when a river of water came down the road.

“The street was rolling,” Diehl said. “I watched it out the window. I said, ‘You could take a boat out there.’”

Diehl said her daughter’s home, like others in the neighborhood, has suffered through several severe weather events in the last six months — a December blizzard, a May hailstorm and now flooding.

“We’ve had our share — from ice to hail and now to river,” Diehl said. In spite of everything, she said, “We were lucky.”

Fire crews braced for more problems Tuesday, with the forecast calling for more scattered showers.

“The ground is saturated enough,” Iago said. “Who knows how much more it can take.”

The National Weather Service issued a flood watch through 7 a.m. Tuesday for all but far northwest parts of Oklahoma.

Associated Press Writer Sean Murphy contributed to this report.

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