FISHER BOTTOMS, Oklahoma – A school of fish now lives in ghost hunter Jim Pace’s yard, flopping around in the muddy water and darting between the cinder blocks and trailer wheels.
Shad, he says, swept out of the normal channel of the Arkansas River as heavy rains swelled Keystone Lake and forced government officials to release millions of gallons of water from the Keystone Dam a few miles upstream. The waters inundated the neighborhoods below, including parts of Sand Springs, Tulsa and the unincorporated subdivision known at Town & Country, where Pace, 66, and his wife, Vicky, 67, have lived for four years.
It is the worst flooding to hit the Tulsa area since 1986, when even higher waters swamped communities. Oklahoma is not alone. Record flooding this week has created havoc in Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Arkansas from locally heavy rainfall and from swollen rivers bringing water south from the north-central U.S.
Authorities were beginning Thursday to make damage assessments and said they don't yet know the true scale of the disaster.
Muddy, stinking floodwaters swamped hundreds of homes in the area, tangling fences with debris and leaving a bathtub ring of red silt on the green grass. Pace’s single-story brick house sits on a small rise, and while floodwaters filled his barn and yard, the house remained untouched.
The floods stood nearly two feet deep Thursday afternoon inside his barn, which they had time to mostly empty as the waters rose, hauling out couches and golf clubs and boxes of paperwork.
Pace doesn't remember what day they pulled items out – everything has been running together since the waters started swirling around his feet last weekend while he was trimming weeds at the bottom of the field.
“We were damn lucky,” he says with a sigh. “I think we did alright, considering. We aren’t spring chickens so it wasn’t easy.”
Like many of the residents of this area, the Paces are retirees on a fixed income. She recently left her job at a local university; he is a retired martial arts teacher who now conducts paranormal investigations. Like many, they didn't have flood insurance and face a months-long process of cleaning and rebuilding, mucking out the stinking sludge that authorities say may contain raw sewage and dangerous bacteria.
And while the rains have temporarily stopped and the waters are beginning to recede, authorities say the sodden dirt levees protecting Sand Springs and Tulsa are at risk for collapse as the water withdraws, at least until they dry out.
"It’s just going to be an absolute mess for a while," Pace said. "We just have to suck it up. It’s going to hurt. We’ve got no flood insurance.”
Thursday afternoon found the couple working on their front yard, the one facing away from the stinking floodwaters and the flopping fish and the mud and the debris.
The power company shut off electricity to the area, and those people who remained in their homes lack hot water. Most people evacuated the area, and on Thursday disheartened residents tried to reach their homes, braving the muddy waters in pickups and bass boats. Those who could still can't get started on repairs until everything dries out.
The Paces' barn will have to be dried out and repaired, with new drywall and new carpeting laid in for Vicky's lady cave. The barn's left side is Jim's domain, ordinarily filled with tools and equipment, while the right side was built as a quiet retreat for Vicky.
They didn't evacuate as the waters rose, trusting the home's position on the hill to keep them dry. Wednesday was the worst of the flooding, they said, but the levels are dropping now, revealing the damage.
"Keeping busy keeps you from thinking about it," Vicky Pace says. "There’s nothing you can do until it’s all over.”
A few streets away, Kay and Joe Foster inspected their daughter's home, which until Thursday afternoon was flooded. Lowering levels allowed them to walk barefoot through calf-deep water to reach the single-story brick house, where green trees swayed in the gentle afternoon breeze as the temperature topped 70 degrees under finally clear skies.
Their own nearby home is still surrounded, they said: "We can't even get to it," says Kay, who was celebrating her 69th birthday Thursday.
Like many residents, the Fosters have seen their share of flooding over the years. The '86 flood filled their home with water, and now they have flood insurance.
"We're sure glad we have it, but we're sure not glad we need it," says Joe Foster, 74.
While the waters are now receding, nervous residents are already looking ahead to a predicted storm system that may drop even more rain on the area this weekend, and authorities are trying to balance water releases from the dam with the need to reduce flooding.
Reducing the amount of water flowing out of the dam reduces downstream flooding, but it means the dam will have more water behind it when the new rains arrive. As of Thursday, the lake was 32 feet above normal and the flood-control pool was 108.24% full, but more water was flowing out of the lake than entering via the Arkansas River.
"We can't breathe yet," Vicky Pace said. "Still, we looked out and we saw ground over there – such a good sign!”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Absolute mess' left behind as Oklahoma flooding from Arkansas River begins to recede