Seen on the run: A city and a state suffer from historic floods

The Arkansas River, well above flood stage.

Over the years, I’ve written about what I see when I go run. If you’ve followed along, you’ll have read about wooded hills and rugged singletrack, urban skylines and gritty streets, and sometimes the more mundane parks and neighborhoods where I log a lot of miles. Eagles and armadillos have crossed my paths, as have hipsters and drug dealers. You get the drift.

Today’s entry is going to be a little different, mostly because the places I run have collided with the relentless forces of nature.

I haven’t run or hiked my local dirt trails in over a month. In May alone, we’ve received 18 inches of rain. I know trail runners pride themselves on not shying away from mud, but this is different. When the trails are this waterlogged, foot and bike traffic do damage. I’m trying to give those paths a break. So that’s left me pounding the pavement or riding my road bike.

The river is seen more than 23 feet above its normal levels, and right under the beams of this bridge.

Sadly, a lot of the running and biking paths I like are under water. Floods of historic proportions have plagued northeastern Oklahoma for more than a week, and eventually, those floodwaters from the Arkansas River topped their banks and swamped miles of paths that I use for many of my runs and almost all of my rides. Riverbank erosion guarantees that they will be out of commission for some time, as sinkholes and shoreline collapses have occurred. It will take many months, of not years, to repair the damage.

Over the past week, I’ve ridden my bike and run to the water’s edge to see how high the river was rising. Short answer: It looks bad. Real bad. Bad to the point where on one Saturday, I saw a guy in a lawn chair on the curb outside his home, fishing. Not in the river. But in the street.

And that was before the flooding really got going.

A RIVER’S WRATH

I don’t want you to think I’m crying about my loss of running and riding routes. Far from it. I can run and ride in a lot of places that are on higher ground, so I’m good. For that matter, where I live is also untouched by the flooding. Compared to many, I’m fortunate.

But the areas that are underwater are familiar to me, and seeing them slowly consumed by the murky, brown floodwaters of the Arkansas over the past week has given me perspective on this unfolding disaster.

From the top of Cry Baby Hill, looking down on a flooded Riverside Drive. To the right, paved park trails are covered by water.

Saturday was the day I went on my bike and saw the dude fishing in the street. By then, the water had blocked off about a block or so of Riverside Drive while also flooding the adjacent park trails. Nearby, a homeless man who had a camp under a bridge up the road was standing on a rock, filling a water bottle at a drinking fountain. I know where his camp is, and it was safe for the time being. Other camps across the river are washed out.

That was when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was releasing 256,000 cubic feet of water per second from the upstream Keystone Dam, the structure that basically keeps Tulsa and many downstream communities from flooding on a regular basis. But even Keystone can only do so much, and those big releases (it normally flows at a small fraction of what we’re seeing now) are the only way to keep upstream drainage from overtopping the dam, an event that would magnify the catastrophe.

On the west bank, the flooding’s severity seemed more plain. In some spots, I could see park benches and water fountains that were nearly covered, indicating a floodwater rise of nearly two feet from just a few days prior. Ordinarily, these fixtures were at least ten feet above the water’s edge. In the middle of the river, an island is completely covered, with only a dozen or so green treetops poking out of the water letting you know it’s still there. The “new” shoreline of the river has slowly encroached on a riverside apartment complex, creeping up the banks. I’ve run and ridden by these apartments scores of times. Never in my life would I thought it possible that they’d be close to being flooded.

Another look at Riverside Drive.

By Monday, the problem had only worsened. Heavy rains upstream from the dam forced the Corps to increase Keystone’s outflow to 275,000 cfs, not far from the record set in 1986. That day, I went for a run in my neighborhood, but also to the bridges that span the river west of downtown.

As expected, the waters had risen. What was once a hundred yards of Riverside Drive under water had grown to several city blocks. The floating remains of uprooted trees zipped down the river close to its banks. Elsewhere in the city, evacuations were underway, streets and neighborhoods were inundated, and sewer drains were backing up.

But what grabbed my attention was the river itself.

When it reaches Oklahoma, the Arkansas River is a prairie waterway. In other words, it’s broad, slow and features plenty of sand bars. It’s wide enough southeast of Tulsa that it can be navigated by cargo barges (there’s a port north of Tulsa from a tributary river that empties into the Arkansas), but for much of the year it’s a sleepy, ponderous thing that meanders toward its final destination at the Mississippi.

Looking south from Tulsa’s 11th Street bridge. The current in the river is incredibly strong.

This week, its demeanor is far less benign. The current is fast. If you were to sprint along its banks, it’s doubtful you could outrun it. Where the river meets bridge supports, the roar is loud. The entire channel is full, churning and racing downstream at an urgent pace.

Observing it this week, the imagery looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. And then it hit me Sunday. The river doesn’t look like a river at all. It looks like a tsunami. A muddy, quarter-mile wide tsunami that never recedes, but keeps barreling southeast, and I wouldn’t want to be in its way.

THE WIDER PROBLEM

My own observations are fine, but I’ve escaped this flood unscathed. That’s not true for a lot of people. They lost more than a place to run or ride.

Several neighborhoods in low-lying neighborhoods in the city and its suburbs have been flooded. Towns like Blackwell, close to the Kansas border, all the way to Muskogee, Fort Gibson and Webbers Falls near Arkansas are partially or completely swamped. The town of Braggs is basically an island, accessible this week only by boat or rail. Farther east, in Arkansas, cities like Fort Smith and Little Rock are in full-on crisis.

It’s part of a trend this year. In the central and southern Rockies, massive snow dumps have left the mountains with snowpack so deep that it will take at least a month longer than normal to melt out. Earlier in the spring, communities in the Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas have suffered massive, sustained flooding. The Mississippi River valley is facing the same fate.

These Canada geese would ordinarily be puttering around in a nearby lagoon, but that lagoon has been swallowed by the river. So the birds are hanging out on higher ground, hunting for bugs and worms.

And let’s not forget the tornadoes. It seemed like we went several days straight where there were nightly tornado warnings. One tornado killed two people in the Oklahoma City suburb of El Reno. Others ripped through numerous towns across the state, including here in Tulsa. Across the country, more than 200 tornadoes from the Great Plains to the Great Lakes touched down in the past 12 days. They even had a tornado warning in Staten Island, N.Y.

Earlier this week, someone on Twitter called out the local media for not reporting on this as an example of climate change. I’m not climate change denier. Far from it. But I know that weather is not the same as climate, so I’m slower to make the link.

However, scientists have told us that as climate change deepens, weather extremes will proliferate. Periods of severe drought will be followed by seasons of extreme flooding. Roasting hot temperatures can be followed by record cold. More intense hurricanes and thunderstorms will be more common. Longer and more severe fire seasons will come. You get the drift. Look at last year’s western fire season, or hurricanes named Harvey and Maria, and you could make an argument that the patterns are already emerging.

And if so, a lot more will be lost than a few running routes or bicycle paths.

In the meantime, I’m hoping the waters recede soon, and for the suffering to end. It’s been said that it will take years to come back from this, and I believe it. We’ll all have some adjusting to do for quite some time.

Tulsa’s River Parks have miles and miles of paved trails for runners, walkers and cyclists on both banks of the Arkansas River. But most of those paths are covered in water, and many are heavily damaged. It’ll be awhile before they’re repaired.

Bob Doucette

Maybe it’s time to back away from the tornadoes

el-reno-tornado

In the minds of any experienced outdoorsman or woman is a simple tenet: Respect the weather.

We watch the skies, check reports, plan accordingly or – if needed – bail on plans altogether if things look too dicey.

So it’s with this mindset that I am attempting to tackle the subject of our fascination with severe weather. And in my part of the world, that means tornadoes.

Anyone who lives in Oklahoma has a strong fascination and layman’s knowledge of tornadoes.  I’ve written about a number of tornadoes over the years and seen the damage they can do, whether it’s a small dustup damaging rooftops or a 320-mph monster scraping the ground clear of anything in its ¾-mile-wide path.

They’re all dangerous, they’re all unpredictable, and they’re all potentially deadly.

And for many of us, they’re all fascinating, so much so that whether it’s weather journalists, or scientists or thrill-seekers, the desire to see a tornado do its thing up close seems to be growing. So also is the variety of advice given to people who might be in a tornado’s path.

I’m not going to dance around either subject. So let’s get to the point.

First, let’s start with the storm chasers. Whatever their motivation, the push to get closer and closer to a tornado seems to have crossed a line. That line, in my view, is injury and death. In Friday’s storm near El Reno, Okla., we got this video from a storm chaser outfit:

The video is compelling and at times humorous. But it’s also a look at what it’s like just before you die while in a car caught in a tornado. Sheet metal, trees and a truck flew by the chasers. Their car was damaged.

They are lucky they didn’t get injured or killed. And for being in that situation, I’ll call it for what it is. They were being stupid. They’ll get a lot of publicity and a ton of Internet clicks on their videos, but being where they were was just plain dumb. My hope is they will learn from it.

This particular storm was different, in that it spun off multiple vortexes in surprising places. That caught many spotters off guard, so much so that in one case, three of them in one team were killed.

Others had close calls. Here’s another image, this one of a Weather Channel team’s truck after being caught up in the tornado:

Trashed

So digest this: Three of the 10 people killed were storm chasers, and the three killed in this storm were not amateurs, but rather experienced researchers who just got too close.

Below is an image that shows where each storm chaser was in relation to the tornado, as posted in the Washington Post’s weather blog:

chasers

Each dot is a storm chaser. As you can see, many of them are right by the tornado, some appearing within the core of the vortex itself. Perhaps we’re lucky that the number of dead storm chasers is just three.

Now what of the other fatalities? Sadly, it appears all them were people caught on the highways in the path of the tornado.

We’ve long been told that a car is not a safe place to be during a tornado. Cars can be picked up, tossed and crushed by debris.

But there is a strain of thinking that if given enough lead time, people can flee a tornado by car.

Unfortunately, this ended up packing Interstate 40 and Interstate 35 during Friday’s tornado, trapping people on the roads as the storm passed. I can’t say for certain if everyone killed on the roads Friday were fleeing the storm or were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But we do know that at least one Oklahoma City TV meteorologist was advising people to drive away from the storm, and that the highways were likened to “parking lots” because of the congestion. Had the tornado stayed on the ground or intensified as the storm passed through Oklahoma City, the death toll could have been much higher.

Here’s another video, showing television coverage of the storm. A couple of times, you’ll hear the advice to drive away from the storm.

To be fair, he also said people should get into an underground shelter, and mentioned that first. It should also be noted that we don’t know if anyone who was killed on I-40 was heeding similar advice to drive away from the storm. But I think we can agree that jumping in your car and taking your chances on the roads as a tornado approaches is a risky, last-resort thing to do, given what we saw happen to motorists in the El Reno area on Friday.

Some discussions need to take place about tornadoes. First, storm chasers need to rein it in. Spectacular video, mouse clicks and bragging rights are not worth your life, and the pack mentality that is settling in among their numbers is getting reckless.

Second, weather professionals need to clarify what they tell the public about what to do when a tornado approaches. It has been reported that in the May 3, 1999, tornado, people got enough advance warning that they were able to drive away to safety well before the storm arrived. But with that tornado, it had already been on the ground for some time before it entered the Oklahoma City area. People knew a half hour or more that it was coming. On Friday, that was not the case. And yet people were told to get in their cars and find safety out of the storm’s path. I think that’s bad advice.

Nature is wonderful, beautiful, unpredictable and dangerous. Spend enough time outside and you learn to give her the proper respect. I’m all for embracing the elements, even when they’re harsh. But there are lines I don’t cross, and it seems like some long-overdue conversations need to take place in this new era of adrenaline-laced storm chasing and weather broadcasting.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Nature’s dark side, Day 2: May 20 Moore tornado

Paul Hellstern/The Oklahoman

Paul Hellstern/The Oklahoman

I was hoping yesterday that the predicted severe weather for Monday would fizzle out, sparing us a repeat of what happened Sunday night in central Oklahoma. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Things just got worse.

This time, the bulls-eye was in Moore, a suburb of about 50,000 on Oklahoma City’s south side. It’s been the site of several large tornadoes going back to 1998, including the infamous May 3, 1999 storm.

I worked in Moore for about 3 1/2 years at a small paper there, so I know the town pretty well. I’ve known its mayor, Glenn Lewis, from way back. In 1999, I was working at the Oklahoma City paper, and was sent to Moore right after that deadly storm.

I remember thinking that outside of a hurricane, there could be no worse natural disaster than this. Fires burned from wrecked buildings. Smashed homes as far as I could see. National Guardsmen being bused in to help with relief efforts. The smells of wet timber, gasoline and natural gas. Stunned, mud-caked people walking out of their wrecked neighborhoods carrying pets or sometimes random items like fishing poles or whatever else was salvageable. Trucks towing trailers hauling the wounded.

It looked like a war zone.

The statistics were mind-boggling Winds clocked at 320 mph, the fastest ever recorded anywhere. An estimated $1.2 billion in damage. A tornado that was on the ground for hours, carving a path from southwestern Oklahoma all the way to Tulsa’s doorstep. Forty-four killed.

Surely we’d never see anything like this again.

And then we did.

As of this writing, the tornado registered an EF-4 (winds up to 200 mph). Its damage path was more limited, but the level of destruction in Moore is at least roughly equal to what happened in 1999. Two schools destroyed, and many of the 24 found dead so far were kids huddling inside those school buildings, thinking they were in a safe place.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Moore rebounded from the 1999 storm in spectacular form. People rebuilt, and under steady leadership, the city transformed itself. Prosperity abounded.

I have no doubt they’ll do so again. But I don’t blame folks there for feeling weary of this. In between this storm and the one in 1999 have been other less severe but still destructive — and deadly — tornadoes that have hit this town. And this time, with so many of the dead being kids at Plaza Towers Elementary School, the depth of the tragedy seems particularly  cruel.

I promise that this site is not going to transform into some sort of weather or current events blog. But it’s hard to think of much else when so many people I know are dealing with this mess right now. Say some prayers for Moore. Go online or by text and donate to the Red Cross. If you’re close to the Moore area, find out what your local churches, employers and relief agencies are doing to help and join in.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

The dark side of spring in the Southern Plains: Oklahoma tornadoes, May 19

I’ve written a number of posts about the importance of getting outside and embracing the elements, no matter how unpleasant that might be. Bitter cold, high heat, rain, snow — these unpleasantries can teach you things and make you stronger. Mental toughness is often what you need to battle the things that the natural world throws at you — heat, cold, storms, altitude and whatnot. Mental toughness is also what you need to “conquer” yourself.

But yesterday I was reminded that those elements sometimes go way beyond taxing. Sometimes the elements are malevolent. Deadly. Unstoppable.

I’ve been living in the Southern Plains for nearly 30 years. West of the Rockies from south Texas all the way up into southern Canada, and southeast into the Gulf Coast, tens of millions of us live in places prone to massive thunderstorms and the tornadoes they sometimes bring. We’ve had a mellow spring so far this year, even a bit on the cool side. It wasn’t mellow yesterday in my former hometown.

Tornadic storms thrashed the Oklahoma City area before heading northeast. They petered out before hitting my new hometown of Tulsa, but left their mark in my old hometown of Shawnee. Dozens of homes and other buildings were damaged or destroyed, many people were injured and two people were killed.

These were massive storms spawning huge tornadoes. Poring over social media, I snagged these photos.

This one was taken from the parking lot of First Baptist Church of Shawnee.

Todd Fisher photo

Todd Fisher photo

Here is another shot of the same tornado, taken earlier, looking northwest. This photo was taken about a half mile from where I used to live.

Rachel Hankins photo

Rachel Hankins photo

Another angle of that tornado, looking east, shows a closer look at this deadly storm.

KWTV photo

KWTV photo

And here’s another, taken from Oklahoma Baptist University, looking northwest.

Jason Melot photo

Jason Melot photo

Like I said, this wasn’t the only tornado that hit central Oklahoma on Sunday. Another very large and dangerous tornado smashed into the small town of Carney. Below is a video of that storm.

Sobering stuff. I know this is a post out of the normal boundaries of what I normally write about. But sometimes things like this are a good reminder about what the elements can do under certain circumstances. It’s a display of awesome power.

Unfortunately, when such power meets our fragile little lives, bad things happen. When it hits a place you used to call home, a place where a lot of friends still live, it hits just a little harder.

It’s supposed to be another rough one today, weather-wise. Here’s hoping we don’t have a repeat of Sunday’s events.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088