Officials urge people to ‘stay away’ from Fall River, evacuate residents

Greenwood County authorities called for the immediate evacuation of people living below the Fall River Dam as water is released from the reservoir at record levels. Widespread flooding is expected, the local sheriff’s office said in a tweet late Friday night.

A shelter is set up at the Jefferson Street Baptist Church, 300 S. Jefferson in Eureka, for those displaced from their homes, the Greenwood County Sheriff’s Office said.

The county’s emergency management office in a tweet Saturday also urged people to “stay away” from the tiny town of Fall River, which sits south of the dam, and Fall River, a popular getaway spot for campers and boaters.

As of Saturday morning, the dam was releasing 36,000 cubic feet of water per second.

“There is not a precedent for this. This is the highest this lake has ever been, and this is the highest release they’ve ever had,” Greenwood County Emergency Management director Levi Vinson told The Eagle on Saturday.

“So we do not know what the water is going to do downstream.”

The concern, he said, is that the town of Fall River would flood and people would be trapped. Most residents heeded the evacuation warning and left.

By Saturday afternoon, water “was encroaching upon town” at Fall River’s western city limits, Vinson said, and there’s “great concern” more rainfall could threaten towns farther downstream.

The area has had 6 to 9 inches of rain so far, he said.

Photo and video footage from the area shows buildings downstream from the reservoir submerged to their roofs and Kansas Wildlife, Parks and Tourism workers using a boat to conduct search and rescue operations at the lake.

All campgrounds and day use areas at Fall River State Park remain closed.

“Barricades are being placed, for your safety do not cross them,” the Greenwood County Emergency Management tweet said. “Turn around don’t drown.”

The announcements come as residents across eastern and south-central Kansas brace themselves for the possibility of more flooding this weekend. Forecasters predict another round of thunderstorms — some severe — will drop more rain on already saturated land, likely leading to flash flooding in some areas.

Between 4 and 6 inches of rain fell in the Eureka area Friday, most within two hours, the National Weather Service said. Areas near Rose Hill, Augusta and El Dorado saw more than 4 inches. A storm moving through Douglass late Friday afternoon that dropped an EF-0 tornado downed trees but spared most everything else, according to a weather service tweet.

About 2.15 inches of rain fell at Eisenhower National Airport in Wichita, the National Weather Service said.

Wichita is expected is receive an additional inch or two Saturday into the overnight hours, with similar amounts possible Sunday, the National Weather Service said.

Much of south-central and southeastern Kansas, including Sedgwick County, is under a flood warning until late Monday night. The Arkansas River is under a flood warning until Wednesday in several towns including Derby, Mulvane, Hutchinson and Arkansas City.

The flood stage for the river is 16.5 feet, according to the National Weather Service. As of 9:15 a.m. Saturday, the water level was 19.7 feet.

You can look up your flood risk at https://msc.fema.gov/portal/search.

“This is a serious flooding situation with no immediate end in sight,” a National Weather Service alert says. “Areas that have not yet flooded may soon as additional rainfall moves over the area.”

The main threats carried by storms expected to move through the region Saturday afternoon and evening are large hail, damaging winds, heavy rain, localized flash flooding, “aggravated river flooding” and the potential for tornadoes, the National Weather Service in Wichita said.

The same is anticipated Sunday in some parts of the state.

The persistent, heavy rains of late have already caused problems for many. In some parts of Wichita and other towns streets are flooded and water is spilling into homes and basements. Several area lakes, rivers and creeks are near or over capacity.

Earlier this week officials began releasing water from Cheney Reservoir as the lake neared a record height of 1,430.5 feet. Some campgrounds and boat ramps at Cheney State Park are under water, causing soggy conditions for lakegoers over the Memorial Day holiday.

The floodgates at El Dorado lake were releasing 4,000 cubic feet of water per second on Saturday, the El Dorado Police Department said in a tweet.

Saturday morning, the city of Coffeyville warned residents on Facebook that water releases from Fall River, Toronto and Elk City Reservoirs could cause the river to rise from 20.9 feet to 25 feet by Monday — a water level that could cause farmland flooding.

“Citizens and businesses need to take whatever precautions they feel necessary and be prepared to evacuate if needed,” the city’s Facebook post said.

Harvey County authorities said that if the rain continues to fall as forecasted it would lead to even worse conditions. Several roads in the county are already closed due to flooding. West Park in Burrton and East Park in Newton — both situated around water — are closed through at least Monday, too.

Over the past few days, authorities have carried out several successful water rescues of people in vehicles, walking and in a Harvey County home. Luckily, no one was hurt, Harvey County officials said in a news release.

“We would encourage everyone to stay away from floodwaters,” Harvey County Health Department Director Lynnette Redington said in the release. “That water won’t be clean, and there may be debris in it you can’t see.”

Pooling and flooding water can be dangerous in other ways. Water may be contaminated with chemicals and other runoff or debris. Vehicles driving through flood waters are at risk of damage or might get swept away. Most can be carried off in less than two feet of rushing water.

Wildlife trying to escape the flooding could wander onto property and into buildings that aren’t tightly sealed, creating a possible nuisance for owners, the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism said in a Friday news release.

Letting children or pets play in flood waters can also be hazardous, authorities say.

On Friday evening, an 8-year-old boy and an 11-year-old boy playing in a Rose Hill drainage ditch were hit by a vehicle as they tried to cross a street to get away from the rising water, the Rose Hill Police Department said. The collision left the 11-year-old boy hospitalized in critical condition and the other in serious condition.

“It’s imperative that people take this seriously,” Harvey County Road and Bridge Superintendent Jim Meier said a news release, referring to the flooding.

“You cannot go through barricaded roads. End of discussion. When you do, you become either a liability or a statistic. We want you to choose safety.”

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Amy Renee Leiker has been reporting for The Wichita Eagle since 2010. She covers crime, courts and breaking news and updates the newspaper’s online databases. You can reach her at 316-268-6644. She’s an avid reader and mom of three in her non-work time.