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Intentionally deluged with no warning

Staff writer

Monte Magathan probably thought that Marion had weathered the worst of the storms.

At 5 p.m. Thursday he drove home under clear skies over dry ground, unaware that a decision to release water from Marion County Reservoir would force him to grab what he could in the middle of the night and run.

Magathan, who has no flood insurance, says he understands the decision that led to the damage of his three-bedroom house at 1823 Remington Rd. and loss of many of his possessions, but he would have appreciated a warning.

“I know why they did what they did, but they should have told people,” he said.

Magathan says he stepped out of bed at 12:30 p.m. into waist high water. He said he grabbed his pet cat and ran to his red GMC Yukon.

“The cat was sitting on top of the deep freezer meowing it’s ass off,” he said. “It had nowhere to go.”

He said he drove to high ground on his property and waited out the night as water seeped through the floorboards of his SUV.

Magathan said two steers he was feeding fled to high ground, but were still in water up to their tails.

An evacuation warning would have given him time to get out and secure many of his possessions, he said.

“I have plenty of cinder blocks,” he said, “I could have gotten everything up and all I would be dealing with now would be the walls and floors.”

He plans to rebuild the inside of his home and is talking to an attorney.

Undersheriff David Huntley said the Marion County Sheriff’s office was not notified about the decision to release water from the reservoir.

“As far as I know we weren’t,” he said.

The game warden notified the sheriff’s dispatcher at 5:19 p.m. that water was coming out of the reservoir at a high enough rate to  flood Pawnee Rd. and asked that the road and bridge department be notified.

The Army Corps of Engineers attributed the flooding near Marion to runoff, not to the increased water release from Marion Reservoir.

“Flooding downstream was probably caused by runoff, not by water release,” said Brannen Parrish, a public affairs specialist with the Tulsa District Corps of Engineers.

“That’s how we’re making our water release decisions. We’re looking at what’s going on downstream, how much channel capacity we have in the river, and trying to minimize impact downriver.”

The Cottonwood River’s elevation reached as high as 27.21 feet Friday at Florence, more than 5 feet above the flood stage of 22 feet high.

Marion County had stretches of clear weather from May 31 to July 2, but the reservoir never released more than 1,000 cubic feet per second in that time.

The reservoir continued to hold water because of high water levels along the Grand-Neosho river system in southeast Kansas and northeast Oklahoma, which the Cottonwood River eventually feeds into, Parrish said.

“It wasn’t just one area,” he said. “The entire system got wet and that was very challenging.”

Marion Reservoir crested at midnight Thursday with a record elevation of 1,359.01 feet. The reservoir level receded to its normal maximum, 1,358.50 feet, by 8 a.m. Friday.

Throughout the day, the Corps of Engineers dramatically increased the amount of water released from the reservoir — quadrupling it at noon, doubling it again at 5 p.m., then increasing it by half again at 6 p.m. They finally backed off a bit at 5 a.m. Friday, lowering the gates to a still very unusual 2½ feet.

“If the water is going up a few inches at the lake, imagine how much water that would be just flowing up the river,” Parrish said.

The record level was more than 6 inches above the reservoir’s rated emergency capacity, and less than 9 feet from the top of the dam — despite having all three gates open 3 feet to release 94,000 gallons of water every second.

Put in perspective, water was flowing out of Marion Reservoir at midnight at a rate that would fill 8½ Olympic-size swimming pools every minute, 10 times the normal rate.

Last modified July 10, 2019

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