Even though floodwaters have receded, John DesBarres and his family’s life remains scattered among mini storage units.
Facing a challenging search through two units, DesBarres called on friends for help. A lawyer by trade, some of what they searched for was paperwork for some of DesBarres’ clients.
DesBarres made his home on several acres nearly 10 years ago just a short drive west of town.
“I knew it was rated a flood zone, but it had not flooded in a long time,” DesBarres said. “I guess I took the risk. ... If you had seen that area before this all happened, you would have a better appreciation of why that is.”
Although the waters have receded, he does not yet know if he will be permitted to rebuild.
“You’re just in purgatory, so to speak,” he said.
At his residence, west of Prattville and east of the Keystone Dam, he had raised cattle and swine. Emergency responders helped rescue some of his goats during the flooding. DesBarres said the house has been gutted and prepared to dry. The yard was still too saturated to bring in any heavy equipment.
“It was just a pretty little piece of country existence,” he said of the life he may not get to go back to. “That’s just about the best way I could put it to you.”
Residents along the Arkansas River west of Tulsa and in unincorporated areas expressed similar sentiments. Their neighborhoods were quiet and peaceful, far enough away from the stress of city life, yet close enough to go to the store.
Mike Luke built his home in the Town and Country neighborhood about 25 years ago, he said. His home, located in the 500-year floodplain, flooded about 4 feet.
“I really wish I knew what I was going to do. All I know is I’m trying to save it,” Luke said. “I’d sure hate to walk away from it. ... Everybody loves this neighborhood because it’s so quiet.”
For several years, Luke said he had flood insurance that at the time cost about $600 per year. He did not have it when his home flooded in May.
A volunteer group from Texas, in Tulsa on behalf of Tulsa’s Dream Center, was helping Luke as he continued muck-out procedures Tuesday. A natural depression in the landscape just north of his house remained pooled with flood water with nowhere to drain except through the already saturated ground. It extends about a mile or 1½ miles, he said.
First steps to rebuilding
Tulsa County inspectors and about a dozen other volunteers have been busy with damage assessments. The reports are required as part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Flood Insurance Program.
A 100-year flood, a bit of a misnomer, is the term given to a flood that statistically has a 1% chance of occurring in any given year, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. A 500-year flood has a 0.2% probability of occurrence.
If the estimated damage caused to a structure by the May flood is 50% or greater than the structure’s fair market value, the structure is considered substantially damaged. Inspectors use that information to determine whether they can issue a building permit to those in the 100-year floodplain. If the home is not substantially damaged, a building permit can be issued to rebuild the home as it was.
The process is more complicated if the structure is found to be substantially damaged. Residents with substantially damaged houses in the 100-year floodplain will have to build to FEMA and Tulsa County regulations, Tulsa County Inspection Division Director Teresa Tosh said.
The county requires homes in that flood plain to be rebuilt 2 feet above the base flood elevation, the computed elevation to which flood waters are anticipated to rise during a 1% annual chance flood event.
“That’s going to be the tricky problem,” Tosh said.
That 1% chance is commonly known as the 100-year flood. Land surveyors were collecting information Wednesday for the base flood elevation to complete damage assessments.
Tosh’s office called a flood survivor Wednesday to inform them they could get their permit.
“The people in the 500-year flood ... it really doesn’t matter if they wait on their substantial damage assessment if they’re willing to build back at current code,” Tosh said.
FEMA does not regulate that floodplain, she said, and the damage assessment only dictates whether a resident can build back to pre-existing condition or to current building codes.
John Miller lives in the 500-year floodplain west of Tulsa and south of the Arkansas River. His home, where he and his wife have lived for about a decade, flooded more than 3 feet.
They initially moved to Oklahoma from Michigan for his job, but he and his wife quickly transitioned to running a day care full time, “so when we lost the house, we lost our jobs.”
Earlier this week, a volunteer group had mucked out his house. Miller spent Tuesday cleaning his house’s skeleton with loaned supplies.
Miller filled a bucket with water and used a sponge to clean “Dan Zigler’s cord.” Miller rotated a section of the cord to read the name. Various tools, fans and equipment found their way to Miller through a friend, he said.
“I don’t know who Dan Zigler is,” he said. “I’ve never met Dan Zigler in my life, but I don’t want to return Dan Zigler’s cords worse than when I got them.”
The Department of Human Services has given them a three-month window to reopen their day care, Miller said. He was not certain what exactly would happen if they did not reopen before then, but he suspected it would involve starting from near scratch in terms of bureaucracy.
“We’re just hoping to get in before 90 days,” he said. “That’s a nightmare scenario for us.”
Miller said he has received some individual assistance from FEMA and is hopeful for a Small Business Administration loan.
DesBarres, Luke and Miller have all returned to their homes but are not able to live in them. Drywall has been stripped, insulation removed, and furniture and appliances that were ruined by water disposed of.
DesBarres had flood insurance. Many did not. Miller said he was told he would not need it.
“This is the 500-year (floodplain), wasn’t required to have it,” Luke said. “I don’t know. It looks like it would have been a cheap investment now, but that’s hindsight.”