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Throwback Tulsa: Arkansas River unleashed fury in '86 flood


- Tulsa World headline, March 4, 1945

People who lived along the Arkansas River in Tulsa and Sand Springs breathed a sigh of relief at the completion of 19.2 miles of levees in 1945.

The massive project was intended to end the flooding that area residents had come to expect each spring since the 1920s.

“The extensive $3,000,000 river levee project, a marvelous piece of work on the part of the U.S. Engineers corps … will provide protection against the Arkansas, a vicious monster in past years,” wrote World reporter Cecil Brown in 1945.

“It can rain and it can flood, but the river district residents need not worry. No longer will they have to pack and get out of their homes when the Arkansas is on a rampage – the levees will take care of Old Man River,” Brown assured readers.

There is no doubt that the levee system has prevented untold loss of life and property due to flooding. But Old Man River wasn’t so easily tamed.

Tulsa area's 1986 flood

Ron Adams sits surrounded by his belongings in the front yard of his home in the Meadow Valley subdivision in Sand Springs following the 1986 flood. Tulsa World file

To keep the Arkansas River within its banks, a dam was needed. In 1965, the Corps of Engineers dedicated Keystone Lake and dam, whose primary purpose was flood control. 

Again, residents may have gotten a false sense of security. That ended in October 1986.

When the remnants of a hurricane dumped almost two feet of rain, reservoirs filled to the brim across northeastern Oklahoma.

Miami, Okla., flooded when the Neosho River overflowed its banks. Bartlesville was inundated by floodwaters from the swollen Caney River. 

With Lake Keystone filled to capacity, the Corps opened the floodgates, sending a mountain of water through Sand Springs, Tulsa, Jenks and Bixby. Frantic residents filled sandbags all along the flood-swollen banks of the Arkansas River.

Tulsa area's 1986 flood

During the 1986 flood, volunteers in Sand Springs worked to make sandbags near the downtown fire station. The sandbags were used throughout the city to try to manage floodwaters. Tulsa World File

Saving downtown Sand Springs

In Sand Springs, the water peaked on Oct. 1 about three feet below the top of the levee. Then, the unthinkable happened.

At about 10 p.m. that night, a breach 30 feet wide and 18 feet deep developed and floodwaters began pouring through the levee near a pump station on South Main Street.

About 125 volunteers hauled sandbags to the cracked levee in their own cars while city employees loaded three flatbed trucks with sandbags and drove them to the scene.

Sand Springs police Sgt. Harold Goad said the volunteers formed a sandbagging brigade to fill the gap, eventually aided by a bulldozer. They finished at 4 a.m. the following morning, according to an Oct. 6, 1986, story by World reporter Linda Martin.

The volunteers were credited with saving downtown Sand Springs.

1943 flood refugees

If it poured, it flooded. That was the conventional wisdom in west Tulsa along the Sand Springs line in the 1940s before levees were constructed to rein in the Arkansas River. Civil Defense workers evacuated families by boat. Tulsa Red Cross volunteers provided shelter, food and occasional delousing at the Sixth Street Armory. Beryl Ford Collection/Rotary Club of Tulsa

‘Respect and preserve’

Meanwhile, the Corps worked to control the raging river, releasing more and more water downstream. The torrent peaked at 310,000 cubic feet per second on Oct. 4, 1986.

Most Tulsans remember or have heard about the devastating 1984 Tulsa flood which claimed 14 lives. It was caused not by the Arkansas River, but by debris-clogged creeks overflowing.

Perhaps less known is the October ’86 flood – acknowledged to be the worst Arkansas River flood since the Keystone dam was built, with more than 1,800 homes and businesses swamped.

Remarkably, only one drowning death – that of a Westville man who was swept away from his stalled truck in Adair County – was attributed to the flood.

“Those who remember the ’86 flood celebrate the free flow of the Arkansas River and the peaceful, green fringe alongside it. May Tulsans continue to respect and preserve the river so we can enjoy it for generations to come,” wrote Ann Patton, a writer and consultant who was part of the team that created Tulsa’s award-winning floodplain management program.

“The flood showed that it’s possible to live with a river, but you have to live by its rules – because, as they say in Argentina: ‘The river always wins.’ "

Featured video

Chief Photographer Tom Gilbert went up in a helicopter to show what the flooding looked like on Wednesday afternoon on May 22.

Find complete coverage of the storms.

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Debbie Jackson 918-581-8374

Hilary Pittman 918-732-8182

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