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.