BIXBY — For Jay Bittle, there were two “Oh, no” moments.
One involved a QuikTrip snack and the other a middle-of-the-night look at soccer fields that were submerged in several feet of water.
At 3 p.m. Wednesday, on the same day that a Tulsa World front-page headline warned of possibly “historic flooding,” the Bixby Public Schools athletic director entered a QuikTrip store to get a late lunch.
“They were closing the store,” he recalled. “QuikTrip never closes, but this one was closing. That’s when I started to realize that this was serious.
“That QuikTrip (at 151st and Memorial) is the hub of this whole town. I got the last pizza before they closed.”
At 2 a.m. Friday, a restless Bittle drove to the Bixby High School campus. A few blocks north of the high school is the city-owned Keas Soccer Complex at Bentley Park. The fields east of Riverview Drive were under water.
Shockingly deep water.
“That’s when I knew we had a situation,” Bittle said. “It made me sick. You hope for the best, obviously, but I knew this was a real threat.”
Bixby was saturated by a seven-day total of 7½ inches of rain. The spring semester was to have concluded on Thursday. Rattled by the flood possibility, officials ended the school year on Tuesday.
The high school is positioned a few blocks south and west of the suddenly dangerous Arkansas River. Officials were concerned for the well-being of several school buildings, along with the football stadium (Lee Snider Field), the gym (the Whitey Ford Sports Complex), the ballpark and additional venues.
‘Campus is locked down’
On Thursday night, I messaged Bittle: Are any of your facilities threatened?
“Yes,” he replied. “All of them, possibly. Won’t know until the middle of the night.”
I asked whether he and coaches were, at that moment, in the Home of the Spartans athletics building at the north end of the football field.
“No,” Bittle answered. “They sent us all home. Campus is locked down.”
Wow. As I watched the second half of the Toronto-Milwaukee NBA playoff game, my mind was in Bixby. I couldn’t stand the thought of seeing something awful on Friday.
I felt a knot in my gut, just as I had during a June 2011 drive to Missouri for a look at tornado-destroyed Joplin High School.
Bittle was the same — sleepless and worried. When he finally went to bed, he had no idea what the status of the beautiful Spartan facilities would be on Friday.
A heavy investment
Bixby has invested heavily in artificial surfaces on its football, softball and baseball fields. State-of-the-art turf ain’t cheap. On Friday, the track was enhanced with a new surface.
As Bittle walked from one facility to the next, he noticed that water had risen to a position immediately beyond the baseball park’s right-field corner. Typically, there is no water there.
During a typical weekend, the Keas Soccer Complex is brimming with people and activity. This weekend wasn’t typical. Bittle estimated that the depth of the water on some of those fields was 5 feet. They won’t be playable for a while.
“You have to put it in perspective,” said Bittle, a 1984 Bixby High School graduate. “We have insurance on these facilities. If we have a mess, we’ll clean it up.
“I’m worried about the people in this area. I have friends who live around here. They could lose everything, and a lot of them don’t have insurance.”
Bixby’s gathering place
Tulsa has a Gathering Place. In most other Oklahoma communities, there is a gathering place — a high school’s athletics facilities.
In smaller towns, stadiums and fieldhouses are more than competition venues. They are epicenters of fellowship.
At Bixby High School, there are 1,600 students. Bittle estimated that 35 percent of those kids are involved in sports or spirit squads, which means that roughly 560 kids use the athletics facilities.
When student-athletes play ball, their siblings, parents, grandparents and friends are there. For the families whose children attend Bixby schools, these facilities are immeasurably important.
The damage or destruction of a sports venue can gash a community’s spirit.
In June 2011, a photographer and I were in Missouri to see the remains of Joplin High School. The reality was a hundred times worse than what I had expected.
While we were instructed to stay out of the shattered, condemned building, we did survey what was left of Kaminsky Gymnasium. There were so many unforgettable images in Joplin, but I was wrecked by the sight of a crushed-flat high school fieldhouse.
The Joplin football stadium was spared, as it is located several blocks northwest of the high school campus. Everything else — the basketball, softball, tennis and baseball facilities, along with equipment and apparel — was annihilated.
Last week was the eighth anniversary of the EF5 Joplin tornado that killed 158 people and resulted in $2.8 billion in damages. I wrote this after our afternoon in Missouri: When you tour the tornado zone, you’re amazed that the death toll wasn’t significantly worse — as in thousands. The scope of the destruction is surreal.
As the tornado tracked through Joplin, Bittle and his son, Jake, were only a few miles north of the storm. After having been at a basketball tournament in St. Louis, they were driving back to Oklahoma when they stopped near Joplin.
They saw dark clouds but weren’t aware of the storm’s power until Bittle’s mother called with details.
‘We’re super relieved’
Joplin residents had only a few minutes to brace for one of the more violent tornadoes in recorded history.
At Bixby, there was stress that lingered for days.
On Saturday afternoon, 72 hours after Bittle made that pizza purchase at QuikTrip, he again was on the Bixby High School campus for an examination of every facility and every spot at which there was the threat of damaging water.
In spite of more rain early Saturday morning, the water levels were mostly consistent with what they had been on Friday.
Oh, and the Bixby QuikTrip had reopened and was incredibly busy.
While the river remained alarmingly high, while water in a canal near the high school was far beyond its typical depth, and while more rain is predicted for next week, Bittle sensed a resumption of normalcy.
“Right now, we’re super relieved,” he said. “We’re still holding our breath and hoping that there isn’t more rain, but right now, it all looks a lot better than I was afraid it might.
“We’re fortunate. I think Bixby got a break on this one.”