Flooding

Homes are flooded near South 145th West Avenue near Oklahoma 51 on the Arkansas River on Friday, May 24, 2019. TOM GILBERT/Tulsa World

Two harrowing weeks have left Tulsans understandably upset and anxious.

A seemingly constant series of inundations hit the city, creating a flooding disaster that destroyed homes and property and left us all very much on edge, fearing that the worst was yet to come.

The experience makes it clear that our community has a big job to prepare for what lies ahead; but first, let’s take a moment to think about how much worse it could have been, how much worse it used to be.

Tulsa owes an enormous debt to the leaders who built Keystone Dam and the taxpayers who paid for it. There aren’t many Tulsans who can still remember it, but there was a time when spring floods on the Arkansas River were the rule, not the exception. Keystone largely controlled the Arkansas and made Tulsa a much safer city.

We also should remember the leaders and utility ratepayers who further hardened Tulsa’s flood resilience after the disastrous Memorial Day floods of 1984. The disaster (14 killed, nearly 7,000 buildings damaged or destroyed) spurred the city into a model stormwater management system that relocated flood-prone homes, built retention facilities and trained the city’s creeks.

The past few days have been terrible, but were it not for the planning and work of earlier generations, they could have been much, much worse.

What will future Tulsans say about our response to the floods of 2019?

One lesson seems clear: The 70-year-old system of levees that protect the homes and industry of west Tulsa must be replaced. Tulsa County Commissioner Karen Keith and U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe have been pushing the issue for years, but their efforts got too little traction.

Last week, we all watched the creaking old levees and prayed that they would hold, and, so far, they have. But it’s time to apply some of that Keystone Spirit to the situation. Look to the example of 1984, and get to work protecting our future.

We may not know when the next trial by water will come, but we know that there will be one. What we do next will determine if we’re ready for it.

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