US town evacuated as loose barges drift towards dam, threatening 'catastrophic' damage

Adam Forrest

An entire town has been evacuated after storms caused two barges to break loose on the Arkansas River and head towards a vital dam holding back the floodwaters.

Authorities told residents of Webbers Falls in eastern Oklahoma to leave their homes “immediately” on Wednesday night, while warning of “catastrophic” damage if the runaway barges on the swelling river struck the dam.

A posting on the town’s official Facebook page sounded the alarm for its 600 residents: “Evacuate Webbers Falls immediately. The barges are loose and has the potential to hit the lock and dam 16. If the dam breaks, it will be catastrophic!! Leave now!!”

Town officials ordered the mandatory evacuation because of the rising river levels following storms, torrential rain and tornado warnings across Oklahoma.

It is unclear whether the barges did actually make it to the dam.

Major roads in the area were also closed because of the wild weather conditions, creating traffic backups around the town Webbers Falls for several miles, local news channel KWCH12 reported.

Residents in several other small towns in Oklahoma and Kansas were to leave their homes as rivers and streams rose.

The Arkansas River was approaching historic high levels, while the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers also rose after a three days of storms that produced dozens of tornadoes across the Midwest.

The National Weather Service said it had received 22 reports of twisters by late Wednesday.

A “violent tornado” touched down in Jefferson City in Missouri shortly before midnight, causing heavy damage in the state capital. Elsewhere in the state, Missouri Public Safety said three people were killed in the Golden City area of Barton County, and several injured in the Carl Junction area of Jasper County.

No fatalities have been reported in the capital, but Jefferson City Police Lieutenant David Williams said emergency services have received multiple calls of people being trapped in homes damaged after the twister struck. “It’s a chaotic situation right now,” Mr Williams said.

Forecasters predicted parts of Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas could see yet more severe weather on Thursday.

Additional reporting by agencies