Flood Control and Drainage
Tulsa has grown up with flooding. Many of the causes are
locational: The city is based on a wide river, in a zone of violent
storms, and on a frontier where a man had a right to do as he
wished with his land.
Flood records are sparse before 1900. In 1908, only a year after
statehood, Arkansas River flooding at Tulsa caused $250,000 in
damages ($13.15 million in 1994 dollars).
By 1920, the town had outgrown its raw,
boomtown image. As riches mounted and investors and speculators
poured in, Tulsa grew to a wealthy city of 72,000. Development
edged closer and closer toward the river.
On June 13, 1923, the river flooded
Tulsa's waterworks, caused $500,000 in damages ($11.94 million in
1994 dollars), and left 4,000 homeless. City fathers responded with
Tulsa's first land-use plan, which envisioned upland boulevards and
housing. In the lowlands, such as Mingo Creek east of town, would
be generous parks and recreational trails.
waterworks moved to higher ground, near a band of Bird Creek
bottoms that became one of the nation's largest city parks. That
far-sighted preservation of Tulsa's 2,800-acre Mohawk Park was
destined to save the city innumerable future flood losses.
The Structural Era of Flood
Meanwhile, around the nation, the 1920s ushered in what has been
called the Structural Era of Flood Control, generally 1928 to 1968.
In response to the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927, Congress
in 1928 passed the Lower Mississippi Flood Control Act, authorizing
the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct dams and levees to
The major impact first came to Tulsa
during World War II. As an emergency national defense project, and
in response to 1943 flooding, the Corps built levees around Tulsa's
oil refineries along the Arkansas River.
By 1950, in the post-war building boom,
housing was fanning out, onto the floodplains to the south and
east. Land that had periodically flooded with little harm now was
awash in wave after wave of urban flooding.
By the late 1950's, flooding of newly
developed subdivisions along the river spurred calls for flood
control. In 1964, the Corps completed Keystone Dam 15 miles
upstream from Tulsa. For years to come, Tulsans would believe that
the Arkansas River was forever tamed.
Tulsa enjoyed another boom in the
1960s, when the city's population grew 25 percent. Tulsa's rapid
growth required pastures and meadows to be piped and paved, as new
buildings continued to spill into the lowlands of the creeks and
streams that etch the area. The rapidly urbanizing Mingo watershed
was annexed to the city in 1966.
every two to four years during the 1960s and early 1970s. The
response was classic: emergency response and recovery,
reconstruction as quickly as possible, and denial of the
possibility that floods could reoccur.
Victims petitioned for neighborhood
flood control, with limited success.
The Regulatory Era of
Nationally, flood losses continued to rise despite billions of
dollars in federal flood-control projects. The dilemma prompted a
decade of actions that could be called the Regulatory Era of
Floodplain Management, generally from 1968 to 1978.
Flood control structures offered spot
protection but sometimes caused offsite problems. They also could
produce a false sense of security that lured more development into
floodplains, flirting with catastrophe. To compound this problem,
the value of the induced growth was counted as a benefit in project
In the 1960s, this problem was
illuminated in the landmark House Document 465, A Unified National
Program for Managing Flood Losses. In response, the late 1960s
brought Presidential Executive Order 11296 espousing floodplain
management and the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968, which made
federally subsidized flood insurance available to communities that
agreed to adopt minimum floodplain regulations to stem future
The Mother's Day flood of
1970 in Tulsa caused $163,000 in damages ($340,000 in 1994
dollars) on rapidly developing Mingo and Joe creeks.
The City responded by joining the
National Flood Insurance Program's "emergency program" and
promising to adopt federal floodplain regulations. In August 1971,
the NFIP issued its block rate maps. A month later, Labor Day
floods hit Flat Rock, Bird and Haikey creeks, and many suburban
communities. In December, Bird Creek flooded again. Tulsa joined
the NFIP's "regular" program, adopted a new 100-year flood
standard, and promised to regulate floodplain land use.
The Year of the Floods,
1974, brought April and May floods that left $744,000 in
damages ($2.11 million in 1994 dollars) on Bird Creek. Violent
storms June 8 caused widespread flooding on Joe, Fry, Haikey and
Mingo creeks, with more than $18 million in damages ($40.24 million
in 1994 dollars). On September 19, Mingo Creek flooded again; for
some citizens, it was the third flood in a year.
Angry, drenched victims waded out of
the floods to demand help. They contended the city wasn't enforcing
NFIP regulations. They tried to halt development, to avoid deeper
flooding until existing problems could be solved. Developers
Thus began a community debate over
floodplain management, locally called "Tulsa's great drainage war,"
destined to last years. The city responded with a plan to widen
part of Mingo Creek, including clearance of 33 houses in the right
of way. The houses were removed just before the next flood.
The 1976 Memorial Day
Flood marked a milestone in Tulsa's search for
flood solutions. A three-hour, 10-inch deluge was centered over the
headwaters of Mingo, Joe and Haikey creeks. The resulting flood
killed three and caused $40 million in damages ($75 million in 1994
dollars) to more than 3,000 buildings.
By this time, the victims were becoming
skilled lobbyists and gathering sympathizers citywide. They stormed
Newly elected city commissioners
responded with a wave of actions. They enacted a floodplain
building moratorium; hired the city's first full-time hydrologist;
developed comprehensive floodplain management policies, regulations
and drainage criteria; enacted stormwater detention regulations for
new developments; instituted a fledgling alert and warning system;
and began master drainage planning for major creeks.
In 1978, an earth change ordinance was
also adopted, giving the city control over alterations to Tulsa's
landscape, including floodplains and stream channels.
The Nonstructural Era of
The Nonstructural Era, a third major phase of stormwater
management, began with the President's 1978 Water Policy
Initiative. It recognized the need to place nonstructural
techniques on a par with flood-control structures and to preserve
the natural values of floodplains and wetlands.
To curb continuing losses, in the early
1980s the federal government developed the Federal Inter-agency
Hazard Mitigation process. In the days after disasters, federal
teams were dispatched to identify hazard mitigation opportunities
basically ways to make the response to each disaster reduce the
scope of the next one. The mitigation concept focused on correcting
the causes of losses, including removing, raising, or flood
proofing the most vulnerable of the damaged buildings.
Tulsans worked with the Federal
Emergency Management Agency to develop the process. Tulsa's early
exposure to the new FEMA mitigation program was to have a
significant impact on the city's response to future floods.
The 1984 Memorial Day
Flood, the worst in the city's history, was Tulsa's
After a muggy Sunday afternoon, a
stalled cool front produced some 15 inches of mid-night rain,
centered over Mingo Creek but also extending across most of the
city. The results were disastrous.
The 1984 Memorial Day Flood killed 14,
injured 288, damaged or destroyed nearly 7,000 buildings, and left
$180 million in damages ($257 million in 1994 dollars). Mingo Creek
alone accounted for $125 million of the damages.
The newly elected mayor and street
commissioner had been in office for only 19 days, but both knew the
issues well. In the darkest hours of the city's worst disaster,
they pledged to make their response reduce the likelihood that such
a disaster would ever be repeated.
Before daylight, they had assembled the
city's first Flood Hazard Mitigation Team to develop the city's
Within days, a new approach to Tulsa
flood response and recovery was born.
As ultimately completed, the program
included relocation of 300 flooded homes and a 228-pad mobile home
park, $10.5 million in flood control works, and $2.1 million for
master drainage plans. The total capital program topped $30
million, mostly from local capital sources, flood insurance claim
checks, and federal funds.
It was only the beginning.
A Unified Program was
created after the 1984 flood. The work didn't end with the initial
flood response and recovery. In fact, it was only the first step in
a long and continuing journey to make Tulsa floodsafe.
The 1984 flood also persuaded Tulsans
that a coordinated, comprehensive stormwater management program was
needed from the rooftop to the river.
The Department of Stormwater Management
in 1985 centralized responsibility for all city flood, drainage,
and stormwater programs.
A stormwater utility fee was
established by ordinance in 1986 to operate the program. The
utility fee ensures stable funds for maintenance and management,
independent of fickle political winds. The ordinance allots the
entire fee exclusively for floodplain and stormwater management
The 1986 Arkansas River
Flood was a first test of the new stormwater management
program. It also served as a reminder of the finite protection of
Keystone Dam. Between September and October 1986, Keystone
Reservoir filled to capacity, forcing the Corps to release water at
the rate of 310,000 cubic feet per second. Downstream flooding was
inevitable. At Tulsa, a private westbank levee failed, causing $1.3
million in damages to 64 buildings. The city fielded its
hazard-mitigation team and cleared 13 substantially damaged
acceptance came in the 1990s, after Tulsans approved a
change in city government from the mayor-commission to the
A new Department of Public Works
consolidated all public works services. Stormwater management was
reintegrated and finally institutionalized into the city
Today, storm drainage management is
generally an accepted part of the city's services and now part of
the Streets and Stormwater Department.
Tulsa's system has not been tested by a
catastrophic rainfall since 1986, but the system has handled
smaller rains well. Leaders believe improved maintenance,
continuing capital projects, stringent regulations, and aggressive
citizen awareness programs will reduce ' but cannot entirely
eliminate future flood losses.
The greatest testimony to the program
is that, since comprehensive regulations were adopted in 1977, the
city has no record of flood damages to any building that complies
with those regulations.
In the early 1990s, FEMA ranked Tulsa
first in the nation for its floodplain management program, allowing
Tulsans to enjoy the nation's lowest flood insurance rates. The
program was also honored with FEMA's 1992 Outstanding Public
Service Award; and the Association of State Floodplain Managers has
twice given Tulsa its Local Award for Excellence.
Leaders consider the Tulsa program
still in progress. They know that much remains to be done, and that
there is an inevitable next flood ahead. The program continues to
The Watershed Era of
The Great Midwest Floods on the Mississippi and other heartland
rivers in 1993 caused more than $10 billion in damages to 72,000
structures and, in some cases, entire communities.
The 1993 Midwest floods spurred
national leaders to re-examine their programs. Although Tulsa was
not directly affected, local leaders also took advantage of the
lessons that the nation was learning. The 1993 floods served as a
catalyst to launch a fourth era in the nation's attempts to stem
disaster losses, according to Dr. Gilbert F. White, a leader in
national floodplain management for the past 50 years, and Larry
Larson, Executive Director of the Association of State Floodplain
That new era looks above and beyond the
floodplains, beyond response to a specific disaster, and takes a
longer and broader view.
"It examines in an integrated fashion
the whole regional floodplain environment," White says. "It is a
program which takes into account the human values, the local
resource decisions, the whole pattern of local community management
as it is related to flood-hazard and the floodplain."
"Until this year," says Larson, "the
government mostly helped people rebuild at risk of the next flood.
A monumental change has occurred in federal attitudes and programs
that assist people and communities in flood recovery. That change
will result in relocation of structures out of flood hazard areas
or elevation above flood levels with government assistance."
This new direction a comprehensive,
regional approach to long-term solutions, based on collaborative
partnerships mirrors the best of Tulsa's local goals and
The long journey and hard lessons
continue. In the words of a former Tulsa mayor, "We're all learning
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