My heart swelled with horror and pride as you battled your river flood of May 2019, Tulsa’s first significant flood in more than 30 years...
...When I sat down to share my thoughts, it turned into a love letter to my hometown.
Starting in the 1950s, I remember all too well when floods were nearly an annual affair in Tulsa. Some of the worst were also in Memorial Day weeks, in 1976 and 1984. How hard we worked to reduce the killer flooding along those creeks with infamous names such as Mingo and Joe.
Now I am watching from a thousand miles away and aching to help. It looks like those internal flood projects again kept Tulsa neighborhoods safe in what I suspect was nearly a 100-year rain. Hurray!
But those of us who worked to create Tulsa’s prototype stormwater management program know, with anguish, that we didn’t do all that is needed on the Arkansas River. Tulsa has the most flood-savvy citizens in the nation, no question. But it’s human nature to think, “We’ve got a dam and levees, and it hasn’t flooded in more than three decades. We’ve got this river under control.”
In reality, Tulsa is a sitting duck downstream from Keystone Dam. Just because the river hasn’t flooded often doesn’t mean it won’t flood again — and, in fact, with catastrophic potential. Keystone Dam was sized to pass three times as much water as this 2019 flood. Remember, the river is coming at Tulsa from Colorado mountains, with 22,000 square miles of runoff from much of Kansas and a big chunk of New Mexico.
The river will rise again, sooner or later, and how big it gets is a matter of educated guesswork. In fact, with climate change, all bets are off.
So, as the Tulsa World editorial board wrote so well, how Tulsa responds to this flood will determine how you fare in the next one.
Here are some ideas to consider, based on concepts that helped some communities become stronger and safer after disasters.
1. Seize every chance to reduce investments and the number of people at risk in the floodplain.
Tulsa’s best flood projects are River Parks and Mohawk Park, where water can spread out without endangering any people who could otherwise live there. Think what would have happened if those parks were neighborhoods. Guard that open space as jealously as if your lives depended on it.
After the 1984 flood, as part of a comprehensive program, Tulsa bought out more than 500 families. That voluntary acquisition program changed the way the nation approached flood recovery. Those families have never flooded again, and the green space, recreation and flood projects work with nature during floods. Maybe there will be chances now, in the Tulsa area, to help some flooded families move to safer sites.
2. Be honest about the size of the floodplain.
How many floods will it take to debunk the myth of the 100-year floodplain? A few years ago, local planners recommended adopting the 1986 flood level for new building along the river. Adopting that standard, admittedly a compromise, could help more people prepare for future floods and perhaps find ways to reduce their risk — especially if Tulsa continues its important habit of notifying floodplain inhabitants about their risk and their need to buy flood insurance.
3. Replace the levees, but don’t stop there.
It is a miracle that the Tulsa levees — really just sand held together by grass — have survived thus far. It’s a tribute to dedicated care by many people. They were thrown up in a hurry during World War II to protect the refineries from river floods.
But remember, levees are inherently problematic. Once they’re in place, people think they will last forever, and folks start moving in behind them, thinking they’re safe. Structural works, such as levees and dams, offer only finite protection with finite useful lives. Levees can go down in bigger rains, causing catastrophic flooding when they breach. Think: New Orleans. For Tulsa, the only thing worse than replacing the levees would be not replacing them. It must be done.
But even with new levees, neighborhoods behind Levee B on the Sand Springs Line, for example, will still be at risk of flooding from the Osage Hills, as happened in 1984. It’s not easy, but a comprehensive approach is what’s needed, to reduce risk, investment and people behind the levees. I’d like to see the community also consider a long-range, voluntary (emphasis, voluntary) program for opportunity purchases and clearance behind the levee, whenever somebody wants to sell and move to a safer site. In time, maybe Tulsa can have a grand new open-space river park near those brand-new levees.
4. Treasure your partnerships.
It will take unprecedented cooperation to pull off any of this, plus a visionary recovery planning process. Tulsa has done it before, with far more primitive tools. I’ve seen good results in some communities with FEMA’s long-term recovery planning, which may provide a useful framework, perhaps in concert with Tulsa’s ongoing resilience program. Fortunately, Tulsa has a world-class group of engineers, planners and leaders and a notable track record of collaboration.
5. Celebrate the good.
So many things went right in this 2019 Memorial week flood. Other towns could learn important lessons from how Tulsa’s teams managed the disaster. Congratulations to all those whose work held the flood to a fraction of the disaster it could have been. Consider, for example, how remarkable it is that there has been no report of Tulsa lives lost during this record storm.
Not many towns still have a free-flowing river to enjoy, but, in fact, the river will do what it needs to do, when it needs to do it. If we want to live safely with a wild Tulsa river, we have to play by its rules. As a wise man told me years ago, “The river always wins.”
Hard as the flood was, the recovery can pose even greater challenges, if the community is to seize the opportunities to make the response a part of the solution next time. But that’s what Tulsa does — take the hard, high road to turn adversity into adventure. That’s what makes it such a special place.
All the best to you, my dear hometown,