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Disaster changed Tulsa

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After 1984 tragedy, city overhauled flood programs

A year after 1984 Memorial Day floodwaters rushed through his east Tulsa home, Carl Moose found himself staring into his new swimming pool as he answered a question from a news reporter visiting his Claremore home.

"She asked how things were going, and I said, 'It's nicer to swim in the swimming pool rather than in the living room,'" Moose said.

The 1984 flood was like no other in Tulsa, so devastating that it led to the city's purchase of 284 houses -- all cleared for storm water detention.

Moose owned one of those homes. After selling his home of 16 years for about $85,000, he and his family of four left Tulsa.

"I had enough to buy another house, so we bought it in Claremore on a high hill," Moose said. "I remember saying, 'The tornado and wind might blow us away, but at least our tail feathers won't be wet again.'"

Moose now lives in Broken Arrow.

The 1984 flood was the sixth Moose's family had suffered since they had moved to the Mingo Creek area in 1968. They had a flood their first year in the home, he said.

Moose, 67, then lived in the 9300 block of East Seventh Street.

"The day before was a normal day. I was an air traffic controller, and I had just worked my day shift," he said. "That evening, it started to rain. My wife was in Oklahoma City, and my daughter was out on a date."

Moose and his son, Mike (then a high school student), witnessed the flood's devastation head on.

"We'd never had (a flood) that high before," Moose said.

He remembers stacking items on a tall chest of drawers in an attempt to save some memories from getting lost or drenched.

"After we got everything as high as we could get it, we went and got in the boat in the garage. But when we tried to raise the garage door, it broke, and we couldn't get it open," Moose said.

The father and son were trapped inside the water-filled garage until Moose shined a flashlight out a window. A man in a motor boat saw the light and let them out.

"Then, we went to pick up other people who were stranded," Moose said.

Water outside rose so high, Moose said he pushed his boat up to the roof of one house.

About 12 inches of rain fell that night in Moose's neighborhood, according to a map of the 1984 rainfall created by the Tulsa Hydrology Department.

Inside his home, the water level rose to about 5 feet 9 inches, he said.

When the Moose family returned home, they found a discouraging scene.

"Everything was wet. It ruined the couches, the carpets, the furniture and matching chairs, everything," Moose said. "The water carried silt and mud in from outside. We lost everything in the house."

After the flood

The city had 72 hours to respond, said Ann Patton.

"We knew people started to rebuild (from flooding) within three days," said the former aide to former City Street Commissioner J.D. Metcalfe.

Patton was assigned to work on flood matters under Metcalfe's supervision. She also served as the head of city public works communications for many years.

"This town really had civil war for about 10 years over what to do about the flooding, and it ended in 1984 on the day of the flood. Before that, there was all this debate. How in the world were we going to solve this problem? Everybody had a different opinion," she said.

Flooding created fear among some Tulsa homeowners who found themselves caught in the cycle of build, loss, build and lose again during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s when heavy residential development interrupted natural rainwater drainage.

After a flood on June 8, 1974, caused $18 million in damage, the city purchased 33 houses along Mingo Creek to be cleared for the floodplain. The buyouts were part of the city's plan to reduce flooding.

Purchase of the homes cost $903,265, states Patton's 1993 city report, "From Harm's Way," about Tulsa's flood-hazard mitigation program.

Those houses were cleared just before Mingo Creek flooded again in May 1976. Three people died in that flood, which left behind $34.2 million in property damage.

Thirty more structures were acquired for the floodplain after 1979 at a cost of $1.7 million, Patton's report states.

The 1984 Memorial Day weekend flood proved even more devastating.

Fourteen people died throughout Tulsa, and 288 were injured. Some were killed in north Tulsa when water rose from the Bird and Dirty Butter creeks. Some died in west Tulsa, too. Five died in east Tulsa from the flood of Mingo Creek.

More than 6,800 structures were damaged or destroyed.

When officials considered acquiring 535 flooded homes after the 1984 flood, they met great resistance.

"It was a major policy change. There was some adamant resistance to what we were trying to do. Now it (acquisition) is just an accepted routine process," said Charles Hardt, director of Tulsa public works and development. "A lot of people took the attitude that people who bought in the floodplain should have known better, and why should we use public funding to buy them out?"

Buyouts went against the mentality of persevering against the tide, Patton said.

"The old federal system was opposed to buyouts. The old federal system was all set to rebuild a flooded house in the same floodplain ready for the next flood," she said.

Former Tulsa Mayor Terry Young, who had taken office only weeks before the devastation, had to convince the Federal Emergency Management Administration to rethink its approach to flooded homes.

"And it was not easy," Patton said.

Eventually, the agency agreed and contributed a substantial portion of the buyout costs.

Funding also came from other sources, Young said.

"We made a few changes in the investment practices of the third-penny sales tax, the first third-penny sales tax, to maximize the interest earnings. The interest earnings then were used to go with the FEMA money and flood insurance money, and it worked," Young said.

By Christmas 1984, the city had purchased 284 homes for the Mingo Creek Project improvements.

Collaboration and design

The city wasn't the only body looking at Tulsa's flooding problems.

In 1979, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Tulsa District began a metro-wide urban hydrologic analysis and, a few months later, performed a more specific study of Mingo Creek and its tributaries.

"Mingo Creek drains pretty much the eastern third of the city. But in the '60s, '70s and early '80s, it accounted for at least two-thirds of our flood damage," Patton said.

In the days following the 1984 flood, the city hired consultants to look at the problem and find solutions. Because the corps was working toward the same goal, the Mingo Creek Project became a joint venture.

Hardt, then a consultant to the city, promoted construction of multipurpose excavated detention basins like those he had seen in Chicago, said Mike Buchert, assistant director of Tulsa Public Works and Development.

Buchert then worked as the project manager for the Mingo Creek Local Flood Protection project for the corps of engineers. He traveled to Chicago to look at the facilities Hardt described. He saw basins used as ball fields when they were not holding excess rainwater.

He also saw advantages of the excavated basins over other proposed structural devices. Grass and concrete-lined channels would have required more land.

"In other words, you'd be destroying lots and lots of trees; water quality would be deteriorated, and there'd be significant downstream impacts" to areas such as Owasso and Catoosa, he said.

Leaders made their choice.

Today, the Mingo Creek project has 23 detention basin facilities designed to hold excess run-off water and to release it slowly. At last count, about 155 detention basins exist within city limits, both privately and publicly maintained, Buchert said.

Although some existed prior to the Mingo Creek Project, most were built afterward, he said.

"There are detention ponds around the community, but a lot of them, you don't know that they're detention ponds. They just look like little parks," Patton said.

The city celebrated the $140 million Mingo Creek Project's completion in May 1999 with a dedication ceremony.

No more neighbors

In 1984, Diana Greene could look out her front-room window and see the neighbors across the street. Today, her sight lines run across the same street but to grassy fields where people play Frisbee and golf.

Greene lives across from Mill Creek, which flows through McClure Park (near 11th Street and Memorial Drive) into Mingo Creek.

Her home is among those standing at the edge of floodplain acquisition.

"It's different because we don't face neighbors anymore. All those houses are gone," she said. "It was lonesome at first. I felt kind of angry because we were left out from the buyout."

When the 1984 flood hit, Greene and her husband were at their family's Grand Lake cabin celebrating his birthday.

"The phone rang late at night, and our friend (in Tulsa) told us that Mingo Creek was coming out of its banks," Greene said.

When her husband and father arrived at their home later that night, houses were filled with water.

Her parents, Eunice and Earl Counts, live a few houses down the street. They have lived in their home since 1960 and have endured several floods.

"I remember that we were frightened," Eunice said. "We were up at the lake, and our youngest son (Phil) was here (in Tulsa) and we were able to talk on the phone to him a few times, but then we lost the connection. The last time he talked to us, he said it was up to his knees."

Phil survived and carried three dogs out of the house, one in the bib of his overalls.

Greene said she was uneasy about being left out of the property acquisition project. Like the houses across the street, her home was damaged.

"Our house had 6 inches of water and mud in it; our cars had floated into the neighbor's yard, and all of our furniture was covered with mud," she said.

The family moved back into the home a few days after the flood and spent the summer repairing it. The Greenes restored their property by using money from flood insurance and a FEMA small-business fund.

Eunice also was discouraged about returning to the same home.

"It was like complete devastation. Everything was wet, muddy and smelly. You don't think you'll ever get through it," Eunice said. "By the fourth (flood), you just want to lock it up, walk away from it and never come back."

Like her daughter, Counts thought her home should have been bought.

"We felt like they should have because we had so much water in the house," Eunice said.

After 20 years, many of her neighbors have left, but Eunice said she is glad she stayed.

"A lot of people ask us why we never moved. We just tell them that we couldn't walk away from our home," Eunice said.

Because they have not had a major flood in 20 years, Greene is satisfied with the flood mitigation project's results.

"The city has done a really good job with the flood control. We just don't think it will ever happen again," she said.

Far from over

More detention ponds will be built in Tulsa, and more residential property will be purchased for the floodplain, Patton said.

"The city's program didn't stop at '93 (when Patton's report was printed)," she said. "We haven't had extensive flooding, but we have some houses ... that flood every few years. The city negotiates with them and often buys almost immediately if they're eligible properties."

Since the beginning of the flood control program (around 1974), Tulsa has changed the way it deals with flooding.

City government changed from lacking a definitive storm water management system to a city with a storm water management department, which was created in 1985. After the public works department was created in 1990, flood control measures were institutionalized throughout city development.

"You used to hear, 'You're the city that floods all the time.' Floods and tornadoes. It really had created a negative public image (for Tulsa), and it really had impacted everyone. That isn't a thing you want to be known for," Hardt said.

Now, the city is known for the strides it has made in control of water drainage.

At any time, there are about 150 homes on the city's list of properties qualified for the floodplain buyout program, Buchert said. But as the city alters the land and fine tunes water collection, the floodplain shifts.

"The floodplain changes. As we do improvements, as we build detention facilities, it changes. Hopefully, it's always reducing, not increasing," Buchert said. "We have significantly reduced our potential for flooding. We have not eliminated our potential for flooding."

Those changes affect the priorities in the city's storm water drainage master plan, updated every three years. The next update will occur next year.

Patton shares Buchert's reserved caution.

"There's still so much work to be done," she said. "We've made so much progress that it would be very foolish to think that it will never flood in this town again. That would be the worst thing that could happen ... for people to become complacent.

"There's a bigger rain out there. We just don't know when that's going to happen."

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