‘Blocked Off From Civilization’: Floodwaters Turn Oklahoma Town Into an Island

BRAGGS, Okla. — Flooding has turned a rural town in eastern Oklahoma into an island — cut off on nearly all sides by water.

To get gas, people in Braggs write their names on their gas cans and a friend or neighbor makes a gas run by boat to the mainland. There are feed runs for people’s livestock, medicine runs, grocery runs. The power was just turned back on for many residents on Sunday night, and more than a dozen people — including children and the elderly — were evacuated by two of the Oklahoma National Guard’s Black Hawk helicopters.

Since late last week, when storms flooded the Arkansas River, nearly everyone and everything that has gone in and out of town has been transported by air or by water. Floodwaters stretch for almost a mile over Highway 10, a main artery so submerged that even longtime residents have a hard time picking out landmarks.

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Members of the Army Corps of Engineers and the Oklahoma National Guard placed sandbags beneath the flood wall in Tulsa, Okla.CreditJoseph Rushmore for The New York Times

“We’re just blocked off from civilization,” said Carrie Ross, 35, a nurse in Braggs whose family has lived in town for years.

Braggs is but one storm-battered snapshot of life lately on the Arkansas River.

Oklahoma and Arkansas on Tuesday were collectively holding their breaths and watching the river, as widespread flooding and dam releases threatened riverside cities and put increased pressure on aging levees amid a forecast that called for even more rain.

In Arkansas, the river topped two flood levees in Logan and Perry Counties, and shelters opened in Fort Smith, Ark. In Oklahoma, all of the state’s 77 counties remained in a state of emergency, and the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management reported six fatalities and 107 injuries attributed to the flooding and severe weather.

The Army Corps of Engineers has increased the release of water into the Arkansas River from the Keystone Dam in Oklahoma to 275,000 cubic feet per second, hoping to keep floodwaters from overtopping the dam’s spillway.

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Flooded buildings in Fort Gibson, Okla., north of Braggs along the Arkansas River.CreditBeth Hall for The New York Times

In Bixby, a Tulsa suburb of 24,000 on the river, where the National Guard is filling sandbags, officials Tuesday morning texted an alert: “As soon as residents believe the situation warrants, they are encouraged to evacuate voluntarily.” In Tulsa, the state’s second-largest city, officials continued to monitor the levees, but said the dam and the levees in Tulsa County were so far working as they should.

“We are planning for and preparing for the flood of record, and we think everybody along the Arkansas River corridor ought to be doing the same,” the mayor of Tulsa, G.T. Bynum, told reporters on Tuesday afternoon. “While it’s high risk, there is not an emergency behind the levees right now. It’s a high-risk situation when you’re talking about infrastructure that’s being tested in such a strong way.”

Braggs is usually a slow-paced town, home to 259, in the hilly country in Muskogee County nearly 100 miles east of Tulsa. It’s a place of farmland and giant catfish. Low-flying fireflies flicker in the night sky amid the music of the frogs. In the pitch-black countryside Monday night, a young man on a dirt bike pulled up to the edge of the flooding, unzipped his backpack and started fishing. Something that sounded like a gunshot rang out: Locals figured someone had shot a snake, which have been rampant in the floodwaters.

But making do with so little access to the outside world has been difficult. There were not a lot of amenities in town to begin with. There is one gas station (it was out of gas but reopened Tuesday), a couple of restaurants, a convenience store and Donna’s Malt Shop — but no grocery stores.

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Rescue teams brought supplies through the flooded Manard Bayou in Braggs.CreditBeth Hall for The New York Times

Because people here are used to a little isolation, and to keeping to themselves, Braggs has quickly adjusted to life as an island. Overnight, residents turned their boats into water taxis, giving people rides out of town to dry land and back. But just getting to the transit points to get back into town — makeshift docks where the floodwaters end at parks or on highways — takes time because of the many roads that are closed.

After days of being cut off, frustration and anxiety are quietly spreading.

Some residents wondered aloud why there have been few state and federal disaster resources in Braggs. And there has been another local controversy: One of the roads into town goes through a National Guard training center, which was not flooded. Yet the public had not been allowed access to that road.

On Monday evening, Ms. Ross was at her mother’s house; her sunburned neighbors and relatives were gathered around the dining table, coordinating the logistics of Braggs life. Her husband, siblings and other relatives were out doing impromptu emergency response — ferrying people on boats or making supply runs to stores on the other side.

Ms. Ross had to tell her boss that she could not report for work on Tuesday. She could get to dry land on a boat, but once there, she had no vehicle and no ride to get to the clinic. She and many others in town had not left Braggs since last week.

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“We’ve got a lot of people praying in Braggs, and people probably who normally don’t pray have been praying,” said Pat Arney, a Braggs resident.CreditBeth Hall for The New York Times

“It could be a lot worse,” said Brinda Coleman, 60, Ms. Ross’s mother. “I don’t think we’re that bad off. We’re getting supplies in here.”

Braggs is one of the communities in Oklahoma affected most by the storm, but the flooding for the most part only encircles it. Much of the town — about six square miles of it, residents said — is dry, though some properties on the outskirts were deluged. Most of the roads are open and clear. With the power restored, and the weather sunny at times, life has seemed deceptively normal.

“Normally, you’re secluded,” said Shawn Cogdill, a neighbor of Ms. Coleman’s. “I mean, that’s just the way it is out here. So it’s not like any different. The only difference is, you can’t leave.”

Pat Arney’s home is surrounded by water, just as Braggs is.

“I’ll have a little island for quite awhile,” said Ms. Arney, 70, a Braggs resident for more than three decades who lives on the outskirts of town next to the river. The flood that people in this part of Oklahoma recall was the one in 1986, but Ms. Arney and others said the current one was worse.

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Wendy and Sameson Spencer looked through supplies at the Braggs Fire Department, where an emergency operations center had been set up to help residents.CreditBeth Hall for The New York Times

“We’ve got a lot of people praying in Braggs, and people probably who normally don’t pray have been praying,” she said.

The Oklahoma National Guard is working with local officials to make improvements to a seven-mile stretch of road in neighboring Cherokee County that will allow Braggs residents to drive in and out of town. Capt. Matt Blubaugh, a spokesman with the Oklahoma National Guard’s Joint Task Force, said in a statement that Braggs residents were previously not authorized to pass through the guard’s Camp Gruber training facility because the connecting road in Cherokee County was impassable.

“The Oklahoma National Guard wanted to prevent people from being stuck in an emergency situation, especially in an area with bad to no cellular service,” Captain Blubaugh said. “If the work on that road is successful and the road made passable, then Braggs residents will be allowed to pass through Camp Gruber.”

Early Monday evening, Mike Ogle, 65, spent his Memorial Day doing what he has done since last week: using his boat to ferry people and supplies back and forth between Braggs and the nearby town of Fort Gibson.

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Horses grazed around the floodwaters. In Oklahoma, all of the state’s 77 counties remained in a state of emergency.CreditBeth Hall for The New York Times

Mr. Ogle’s home in Fort Gibson was flooded up to the attic; he passed it on every boat trip he made to Braggs. People in Braggs have offered him cash for the rides, but he has refused it. One man brought him a carton of eggs as a thank-you, and it sat at the front of his boat.

“It’s kind of an insult to take money,” Mr. Ogle said. “I had people show up at my house that I didn’t know that helped me get my stuff out. I put stuff in the attic, but it wasn’t high enough.”

As the sun dipped low in the sky, Mr. Ogle’s ferry into Braggs passed smoothly across a surreal water-world. Somewhere under the water to the left was a neighbor’s hayfield. Poking out of the water to the right were little strips of metal, the tips of submerged stop signs. Residents were told it could take weeks for the water levels to drop, and the increased releases from Keystone Dam might raise it even higher.

“It didn’t sink in, until I went swimming into my house,” Mr. Ogle said as he sat at the wheel of the boat, choking back tears. “I had to wear a life jacket, because it’s overhead.”

Then he quickly dismissed his own problems, saying, “Other people got it worse.”

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