WEBBERS FALLS, Okla. - It is a tiny town in America’s hinterland that has almost been wiped off the map.
For a week and a half, all 610 residents of Webbers Falls, Oklahoma have been forcibly evacuated from their homes poised beside the bulging Arkansas River as historic floods have swept through the once cozy community, threatening the lives and livelihoods of every single person and pet.
“The most frustrating part is the feeling of helplessness, just being helpless,” Sandra Wright, the Webbers Falls mayor, told Fox News from her dark, hot office on the edge of the overflowing waters. “But we are trying to help people help other people, and keep everyone out of harm’s way.”
After several days of voluntary evacuation, the ordeal kicked into high gear the Thursday before Memorial Day weekend when a combination of police officers, municipality officials, and the fire department went door-to-door insisting everyone leave immediately.
Now, Webbers Falls has been reduced to an empty ghost town - only a few emergency workers are allowed in - and it is a storm-battered snapshot of broken lives. It remains to be seen if water levels will continue to dangerously rise in coming days and if the aging levee system can withstand the anomalous pressure.
Fox News surveyed the empty flooded town, awash with rusty brown water, twisted trees, and splintered structures. There is no electricity, no running water, few signs of life. Almost every building has been swallowed to some degree by lingering flood water. The one local school has been especially hard hit, making it uncertain whether it will be up and running for the fall semester still months away.
Each forcibly displaced person has a heart-wrenching tale to tell.
“I had just fifteen minutes to leave, I was so in shock I couldn’t think properly about what to take,” recalled Mary Lake, 70, a former antiques dealer who is now retired with her husband - a veteran of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. “They knocked at the door and said if I didn’t go, I would need to write my name with scarlet letters on my arm so that when I floated up, they would know it was me.”
When they were made to leave, their neighbors also jumped in the car. The two families are now in limbo with friends some two hours away in Chandler, Okla. with little knowledge what has survived and what has not. Lake believes they have lost the three residences they owned in Webbers Falls, with water up to the ceilings in some parts.
But that is not what cuts the deepest.
“What I worry about most is that I kept journals for thirty years. That’s my life,” Lake lamented. “These are all the things I can never get back.”
Tonya Adams, whose husband is a disabled U.S military veteran, says they are now homeless with their six dogs and staying temporarily with friends. She agreed that it’s the drowned sentiments that are the hardest to fathom.
“It’s where our son and daughter grew up,” she reminisced. “Going back, it is going to be a sad day.”
Amberly Coffman, 38 - the mother of five boys between nine and fifteen - underscores that every waking moment has been peppered with stress. Suffering from lupus, fibromyalgia and a history of brain aneurysms, she had been in the hospital when the flood warnings came pouring in. Riddled with anxiety, she said the doctor released her so she could quickly pile the family in the car and head for a friend’s vacant home - albeit without electricity - in Checotah.
“We had to leave our eight-year-old pit bull behind and my boys cried over it. They are worried sick about their friends,” Coffman told Fox News. “Many also lost their Houses of Worship in this. Where can they go for spiritual help?”
Coffman and her husband, a trucker, had saved up their tax returns to start a much-anticipated home remodeling, which she believes has now largely been destroyed. Like many others in the tight-knit community, they were not able to afford the exorbitant flood insurance costs, but she said she is doing what she physically can to drum up support and bring awareness to the needs of the Webbers Falls people.
“My doctor says I think too much with my heart and not my head, I feel too much. But I just think it’s the Christian thing to do,” Coffman said. “People lost big things but small things too, like dishrags and underwear. One lady only had time to put in one contact lens before she had to load up her baby and run.”
Residents like Coffman have also expressed grave concerns, with some desperately seeking shots, over rumors of water contamination from potentially scores of drowned cattle floating downstream from the hard-hit areas in Oklahoma through to Arkansas. But according to Wright, they do not have any dead cows.
“Some did go through the lock and dam at one point. There was one that washed up at the end of town,” she said. “When the water came up the second time, it was gone.”
Yet the big challenge Wright, whose own residence has also been gulped up and rendered unlivable, is now grappling with is how and when to allow people to come back in safely. She doesn’t anticipate too many will be able to actually move back in the short-term, and even visits will likely have to be managed via a sign-in and sign-out system so that they can keep track of everyone for safety purposes.
“We are discussing a phasing-in of letting people come back as we still have a lot of areas under water. We may let some back just to evaluate the damages, but we have to make sure our sewer system is working properly and get the water back up and the gas company has to come and check every meter,” Wright said. “So far, every single person has cooperated and has been wonderful. But I know tensions are going to rise and patience is going to wear thin.”
The mayor also feared that some might choose not to return to the already tiny hamlet, many farmers who lost all their crops will have to endure many months of financial devastation and others simply too destitute to mend again.
“We have so many senior citizens here and they do not have the funding available to rebuild their homes and come back in,” Wright said.
Given that the bulk of mandatory departures happened so suddenly, many had to wrenchingly leave behind their beloved pets. However, in the charm of a small community, local firefighters are said to have located all remaining animals and are going in daily to check on them and provide food and water.
And while the confused and close community is now scattered across towns and borders and beyond, many are finding solace in local churches and through calls and prayer groups.
“God is still on the throne, and he has never let me down,” Lake added. “I am alive.”