25th Anniversary of the 1986 Arkansas River Flood

In late September and early October 1986, the Keystone Reservoir was filled to capacity by storms upstream. On October 4, 1986, the Keystone Dam released water measuring 310,000 cubic feet per second. The picture below of sandbagging on Riverside Drive dates from this event.

For the twentienth anniversary, Ann Patton, our founding director, submitted a letter to the editor to the Tulsa World that was run in their reader’s forum on October 1, 2006. On this twenty-fifth anniversary, her words still resonate with wisdom, even during this time of drought.

Lessons learned from the 1986 flood
By Ann Patton

(originally published in Reader’s Forum, Tulsa World 10/1/06)

Tulsans have reason to celebrate. This week marks 20 years since Tulsa’s last major flood.

People with long memories will know how remarkable that is. In the 1970s and ’80s, Tulsa was flooding about every other year. Tulsa County earned the embarrassing distinction of having nine federal flood disasters in 15 years, the nation’s worst flood record. Thousands of houses were ruined. People died. Our national reputation was a joke.

In late September 1986, the remnants of southwestern Mexico’s Hurricane Paine parked uphill from Tulsa and dumped nearly 2 feet of rain northwest of Keystone Lake. The river swelled. The Corps of Engineers had to open Keystone Dam’s floodgates and send a torrent downstream — through Sand Springs, Tulsa, Jenks and Bixby.

It was not the first flood along the Arkansas River — in fact, the river flooded every few years for most of Tulsa’s history. But 1986 was the first serious Arkansas River flood at Tulsa since Keystone Dam was completed in ’64. Popular thought held that the river would never flood again — although the corps warned that Keystone could overflow every 25 years, more or less.

The crisis lasted a week and at its peak, about 300,000 cubic feet per second of water swept through Tulsa.

While the dam was safe, no one knew how high the water would rise and whether the sand levees (built quickly in World War II) would hold at Sand Springs, Tulsa and Jenks. The corps feared a catastrophic failure of the levee system. The Sand Springs levee was breached but volunteers managed to plug it.

Thousands were evacuated. Hundreds stuffed sandbags — with little effect — along the river, including in the bowl that was Riverside Drive south of 21st Street. On the west bank, the river swamped Garden City up to the rooftops, and the trapped, polluted water lingered for days, like a mini-New Orleans.

More than 1,800 homes and businesses went under water. Tulsa County damages were estimated at $63.5 million (in ’86 dollars), $32.5 million at Sand Springs and $13.4 million at Bixby. The same week, almost all streams in northeastern Oklahoma and southeastern Kansas rose out of their banks causing $283 million in damages, the corps reported.

When the water began to recede, it was clear that River Parks had gone almost under water. Officials hosed off the grass and the joggers were back on track. That narrow, green band of River Parks gave us the needed margin of safety.

There are at least two reasons that we haven’t had a major flood in Tulsa in two decades. We have learned to build more wisely, more respectful of the natural laws of water and land, and monster rains have not cycled our way.

There are new reasons to worry about big storms since lakes, dams and dikes don’t last forever. Keystone Lake is slowly silting in and a filled bathtub can’t hold much water. The dam and levees are aging, and buildings are creeping closer to the capricious river, which some mistakenly believe has been tamed.

The ’86 flood proved that the Arkansas River needs its channel and banks open to carry floodwaters. The Arkansas River drains 22,000 square miles of land above Tulsa. Experts know heavy rains are possible and a worst-casescenario flood at Tulsa could be bigger than the one in 1986.

The flood showed that it’s possible to live with a river, but you have to live by its rules — because, as they say in Argentina: “The river always wins.”

Are we in danger of forgetting? Hubris rises in dry years.

Those who remember the ’86 flood celebrate the free flow of the Arkansas River and the peaceful, green fringe alongside it. May Tulsans continue to respect and preserve the river so we can enjoy it for generations to come.

Ann Patton, Tulsa, is a writer and consultant who was part of the team that created Tulsa’s award-winning floodplain management program.

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