At this time last year, portions of northeast Oklahoma were in a drought, or abnormally dry. Then a tornado ripped across Lake Tenkiller and — weather-wise — it could be said that things have gone downhill from there.
The area went from drought to flood in the blink of an eye and it hasn’t looked back. Rainfall totals for northeast Oklahoma hit record annual levels more than a month ago and the totals continue to climb.
Because the region’s soils are soaked and without summer’s heat to evaporate what falls — or summer’s vegetation to absorb some water or hold back flows — the area is prime for flooding, experts said.
With 1.5 to 2.5 inches of rain across northeast Oklahoma and northwest Arkansas on Saturday, the Illinois River rose to minor flood level range and crested at 12.6 feet at 4 p.m. Sunday. That’s the 18th time in the past 12 months the river has hit a warning stage.
Since Dec. 28, 2018, the river crested at “action” or warning stage seven times, minor flood stage six times, moderate stage four times and hit major flood level at 21.1 feet on Oct. 7, according to National Weather Service data.
Downstream at Lake Tenkiller, damage from the 2018 tornado and severe storms still needs to be repaired, according to Dennis Covey, lake manager for the Tulsa District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Hundreds of trees were uprooted and facilities at the Elk Creek and Snake Creek campgrounds — picnic areas, gate shacks, courtesy docks, fire rings, and playgrounds — were destroyed, he said.
“About the time we got the contract awarded is when the flooding started,” he said. “They got some work done, all the trees are moved; and then the flooding started.”
Even when rainfall upstream on the Illinois didn’t cause great flooding, floods elsewhere in the region meant the dam needed to be closed early in the spring and water levels were high.
“There are no people on this planet that want a normal summer next year more than me and my staff,” said Covey, who took his position as manager at the lake just before the tornado hit.
State Climatologist Gary McManus said the quick rise to the river — and minor flooding and standing water across much of the region — is likely “just a hangover from what’s been happening.”
Northeast Oklahoma and northwest Arkansas have beaten annual rainfall records by incredible amounts, he said.
“Those areas had already beaten annual rainfall records in the first 11 months of the year by 10 to 15 inches, and they didn’t just beat records, they blasted them out of existence,” he said.
The previous annual rainfall records for Miami, for example, fell in the 59- to 66-inch range. For 2019 the total will be over 80 inches, he said.
“You’ve got this year that’s suddenly 13-14 inches higher all the sudden than ever before. It’s the same for much of that region, and we still have a month to go,” he said.
Eric Jones, hydrologist with the U.S. Weather Bureau River Forecasting Agency at Tulsa, said the conditions simply were ripe for the Illinois River to rise quickly to flood stage with cool weather decreasing evaporation and allowing soils to remain wet. Lack of vegetation just speeds the flow of water across the ground, he said.
Conditions likely will remain this way for at least a few more weeks, he said.
“We’ve just been stuck in this pattern,” he said. “And it looks like it might be a couple more months like this.”