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Kansas Turnpike reopens in both directions between Oklahoma and Wellington after flood

Drone video of the flooded Kansas Turnpike

The Kansas Turnpike remains closed from Wellington to the Oklahoma border as floodwaters from recent heavy rains cover the highway. (May 8, 2019)
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The Kansas Turnpike remains closed from Wellington to the Oklahoma border as floodwaters from recent heavy rains cover the highway. (May 8, 2019)

Update, 10 p.m. Thursday:

The Kansas Turnpike Authority reopened I-35 from the Oklahoma state border to Wellington less than 48 hours after it was closed due to flooding.

“We are so proud to share I-35/KTA has been repaired and is fully open, less than 48 hours from when it closed,” the Turnpike Authority officials said in a tweet that shared a short video showing flooding and later construction work. “The first 24 hours belonged to Mother Nature; the second 24 hours belonged to us. Watch how the work unfolded.”

Original story:

The Kansas Turnpike remained closed to northbound traffic from Oklahoma on Thursday after a 100-year flood shut down a southern stretch of the highway Wednesday.

One southbound lane was opened to traffic Thursday morning, a spokesperson with the Kansas Turnpike Authority said. Both lanes going north were closed and one southbound lane was also off-limits south of Wellington. It was unclear when southbound lanes will reopen completely.

“The water has receded to the point where we’re able to really get in and assess the roadway. From there, we’re making decisions on what can be done immediately and what can be more of a long-term fix,” said Rachel Bell, director of business services and customer relations for the Kansas Turnpike Authority.

That was early Thursday afternoon.

At 2:37 p.m., the Kansas Adjutant General’s Department sent out a news release that said northbound lanes “anticipated reopening later this evening.”

Bell said in a follow-up interview that the Turnpike Authority is not willing to commit to that timeline, but she said they could be open as early as this evening.

“When I have talked with crews down there, we’re just not able at this point to commit to anything there. They are working as quickly as they can. They are laying asphalt, but there are still a lot of variables,” Bell said.

“I would say that I’m not willing to commit to that timeframe at this point, but it’s certainly our goal to get it open as quickly as possible. We understand how important that section of roadway is.”

Truckers and commuters have had to find a different route after Slate Creek, a tributary of the Arkansas River that runs under the Turnpike four miles south of the Wellington exit, forced the toll road to shut down at 12:30 a.m. Wednesday. More than 18,000 travelers a day use the highway south of Wellington, according to last year’s numbers from the Kansas Turnpike Authority.

“The Turnpike service is a major interstate and we certainly understand that responsibility, and we want to provide a good service for our customers,” Bell said. “However, we also have a responsibility to make sure the proper repairs are made in areas that need it before they return to the roadway.”

Slate Creek hit a peak of 26.05 feet Wednesday, higher than previously reported, according to data the United States Geological Survey released Thursday. It had a flow of 24,400 cubic feet per second. That’s enough to consider it a 100-year flood — a flood so severe that it has only a 1% chance of happening each year.

The only time the creek staged higher in that area was Nov. 15, 1964, according to records dating back to 1960. The only time it had a higher flow rate was in 1975.

The Slate Creek area wasn’t identified as an area that needed immediate attention when the Turnpike Authority commissioned a long-term-needs study in 2015 after flash flooding caused a death farther north on the Turnpike near Emporia. But engineers plan to study the area sometime after July 1, and improvements could be made as early as 2022, Bell said.

“One of the things that we have talked about a lot internally here is that travelers see a project on the road and by the time they see the construction on the road, they’re seeing the tip of the iceberg — because there is all this planning and analysis that has to go into any roadway project that most people never see. And that’s kind of where we’re at right now,” Bell said.

Contributing: Jason Tidd of The Eagle

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