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The City Preparing for Climate Change Without Ever Saying the Words

Tulsa, Okla., a conservative oil town, serves as an example of how places can overcome politics to prevent damage and save lives.

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Along with millions of other people, Anna America was saddened by the devastation and loss of life that struck Houston in August. Like many others, she wondered whether the city’s massive sprawl contributed to the damage from Hurricane Harvey. Thousands of acres in Houston that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had intended to use for a reservoir and other flood control projects had been paved over, taken up by homes that left flood waters with nowhere to go. That kind of thing wouldn’t happen where America lives. “We haven’t done that for decades,” she says. “Since the 1970s, we have not built noncompliant homes in floodplains.”

America is a member of the Tulsa, Okla., City Council. In recent decades, Tulsa has become an unlikely model for strong flood control efforts. Back in the 1970s, so-called 100-year floods occurred nearly every year, with creek beds overflowing and damaging property. Following a particularly devastating storm in 1984, which killed 14 people and damaged 5,500 homes, the city decided it was time to take a new approach. Since then, it has put in place a series of detention ponds -- excavated basins designed to hold water following severe storms -- and uses flood maps more demanding than those required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It’s also pursued an ambitious plan to move or tear down homes that have been subject to repeated flood damage. All told, the city has paid to transport or destroy roughly 1,000 houses, an effort that’s ongoing. 

Tulsa’s flood issues aren’t over. Although the city has gone a long way toward reducing the overflow of its creeks, it hasn’t done much lately to deal with another potential problem: flooding along the Arkansas River, which runs through parts of town. Still, Tulsa has done more to address its exposure to a serious natural threat than just about any other city in the country. Not that long ago, Tulsa had the highest flood insurance rates in the nation. Today, its rates are just about the lowest. Other Oklahoma cities continue to suffer extensive damage when sudden storms known as “toad stranglers” pass through. But Tulsa hasn’t flooded on those occasions, even during recent months that have been among the wettest on record. “In 2015, there was flooding in the suburbs, but we didn’t have any,” says Bill Robison, the city’s floodplain manager.

As a conservative oil town sitting 500 miles north of Houston and the Gulf of Mexico, Tulsa is a surprising setting for one of the nation’s most extensive climate adaptation efforts. Its example, though, shows that local leadership and investment can do a lot to prevent damage from the predictable threats that are likely to worsen with climate change. 

Communities like Tulsa, far from any coast, still face increased risks from a variety of disasters, including fires and tornadoes. Coping with these problems may take decades of investment and political fighting. It can be a tough sell for local governments that want to create a safer and more secure future. It seems to be human nature to believe that disaster will not strike one’s own home. Even when the worst does happen, people have a hard time accepting that it could easily happen again. “A natural disaster is not enough, in and of itself, to push cities to make real policy change,” says Rachel Krause, a political scientist at the University of Kansas who studies responses to climate change. “Frankly, it takes deaths.”

What’s more, progress won’t always happen under the words “climate change.” In Tulsa, environmentalists have learned that in a town founded and fueled by the oil economy, the term is a surefire way to shut down discussion. They talk instead about “extreme weather,” emphasizing the need to plan for reoccurring storms. 

The same is true in many places. Progressive coastal cities such as Boston and Seattle now formally worry about sea-level rise and other effects from climate change as part of their policymaking process. But in many areas of the country, the idea that the climate is changing in permanent and unpredictable ways is not an accepted fact. That doesn’t mean, however, that no thought is given to recurrent problems such as flooding, hurricanes and wildfires. Every city has some plan in place for dealing with natural disasters and emergencies. Thinking about climate could simply mean taking possible effects into account as part of broader planning and response efforts. “We don’t freak out, to use a highly technical term, if for political reasons, folks don’t want to say ‘climate change,’ as long as they are taking steps to address climate change,” says Otis Rolley of the Rockefeller Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities effort, which has provided funding to Tulsa.

By its very nature, climate change will have unpredictable effects. But many of its main effects are entirely predictable. Places that are prone to natural disasters will likely see more of them. If a region experiences hurricanes, for example, it will have more intense hurricanes. If it is routinely hit by floods, there will be more flooding. And regardless of whether climate change is an accepted fact, it’s clear that the gears of nature’s disaster-making machinery are speeding up. During the 1980s, the nation endured, on average, fewer than three natural disasters per year that caused $1 billion in damage, in constant dollars. Now, the annual count is higher than 10.

A decade ago, the idea that places should adapt and prepare themselves to endure new and strange effects, rather than working to prevent climate change by lowering their carbon emissions, felt to some environmentalists like an admission of defeat. Those days are over. Even if no more carbon were put into the atmosphere, cities and counties would still be facing a set of climactic circumstances unlike those they have seen in the past. Planning for the obvious stuff -- locally recurring issues such as floods or fires -- should be a given. 

It’s possible that the season of destruction wrought by Harvey, Irma and Maria will lead the nation to think about taking steps to prepare for disasters in the places where they’re most likely to occur. Prior storms such as Katrina and Sandy led to tighter building regulations. Two weeks before Harvey engulfed Houston, however, President Trump rolled back an Obama-era order making it easier for storm-struck communities to use federal emergency aid to rebuild structures in ways that strengthened them against future disasters. “Raising additional money is harder without the impetus of a catastrophe,” says Janet Bly, general manager of the Miami Conservancy District in Dayton, Ohio, a flood control agency created a century ago. The lack of problems since then in her area have made it hard to keep people focused on the potential for devastation, she says. “We’re almost the victim of our success when it comes to that.”

There’s kind of a pattern: A community endures one bad event after another, until finally it experiences something so catastrophic that it’s ready to address the problem. That certainly held true in Tulsa. Residents put up with recurring floods for decades. It was the fatal flood of 1984 that led to change. Even with the 14 deaths and extensive damage fresh on everyone’s minds, it took a dedicated band of individuals, inside and outside of government, who were willing to spend years pushing the issue. Their success has since bred complacency. Plenty of people now wonder whether it isn’t time to rebuild along Mingo Creek, particularly a mile-long stretch that has since been denuded of homes. New projects are also being proposed along the Arkansas River, which has historically been prone to severe floods.

What the story of Tulsa shows is that protecting against climate effects is an effort that has to be more or less permanent, stretching across generations. It’s doable, but it’s certainly not easy, either from an engineering standpoint or a political one. The only places that will make the attempt are the ones where people realize that, practically speaking, there’s no better choice. The alternative is continuing destruction and death. “We’re never, ever going to be able to say we’re done with disasters,” says Tim Lovell, executive director of the Disaster Resilience Network, a nonprofit group in Tulsa. “Disasters are going to continue. The question is whether you can design your community so that they don’t have the impact they might have.”

When it comes to natural disasters, Oklahoma has it all. The state constitutes a central stretch of what’s known as Tornado Alley. Thanks to oil industry fracking, Oklahoma has supplanted California as the place where residents are most likely to experience damage from earthquakes. The wind that comes sweeping down the plains causes damage. So do hail and ice storms. The sun shines most days, but storms are so common that the Tulsa Voice, the local alternative weekly, includes “Best Place to Wait Out Extreme Weather” as a category in its annual “Best of” awards. This year’s winner, appropriately, was a basement bar called the Cellar Dweller.

Tulsa sits on the edge of the 1930s Dust Bowl, but for most of the 20th century it was plagued by floods caused by sudden squalls or cloudbursts. The city experienced major floods in 1923, 1943, 1957 and 1959. “The river would flood routinely,” says Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum. “My parents’ generation, and certainly my grandfather’s, all have stories about taking sandbags down to Brookside to keep stores from flooding.” In response to repeated flooding in Brookside and other neighborhoods, the Army Corps of Engineers completed Keystone Dam, which is about 25 miles south of Tulsa, back in 1968. 

But around that same time, Tulsa annexed unincorporated land to its east, tripling its size and taking in homes that had been built under next to no regulation whatsoever. The Mingo Creek watershed was a particularly popular place for development. Wooded streams are always a scenic place to be. Tulsa back then was making the same mistake Houston has since made, building without concern for where the displaced water was going to go.

Flooding seemed to intensify during the 1970s, back when Bynum’s grandfather was serving as mayor. A total of nine federal flood disasters were declared between 1975 and 1980. People who’d been washed out of their homes would come to city hall to demand action, sometimes still covered in mud -- or so the local legend goes. Many of them also talked to Ann Patton, then a reporter with the Tulsa World, whose articles helped keep up the pressure on the city government. Patton, who ended up working on flood issues for the city, became an ally of Tulsans for a Better Community, a citizens’ group that pressed for serious flood management efforts from city hall. “We had a war going on between the citizens and the development community,” recalls Ron Flanagan, a longtime planner in Tulsa. It was dubbed the “great drainage war” by the local media. 

The city government passed some ordinances to address flooding, but homebuilders and developers pushed back, raising money to support candidates who were sympathetic to their needs. Their efforts helped lead to the election of James Inhofe as mayor in 1978. Inhofe would go on to national fame as the leading climate change denier in the U.S. Senate. He told Flanagan and others working on flood control efforts that their services wouldn’t be required during his administration. Some stuck around, but several of them scattered to jobs in other states.

Everything changed in 1984. On Memorial Day, 15 inches of rain fell within six hours, according to one gauge. In addition to the 14 deaths, 288 people were injured and 7,000 vehicles were damaged or destroyed. Total losses were estimated at $180 million ($415 million in today’s dollars). As it happened, many of the former officials and activists concerned with the flood issue -- they called themselves the “flood friends” -- had gathered in Tulsa over the holiday weekend for a reunion. Terry Young, who had been sworn in as mayor 19 days earlier, summoned Flanagan and two others that night to work out a plan to try to address flooding along the creeks once and for all.

Young, a one-time weatherman, had made stormwater management a centerpiece of his campaign, having heard so many complaints about flooding during his years on the county commission. While the typical response after a catastrophe was and is to help people rebuild, Young convinced a bare majority of the city council to pass an ordinance forbidding homes that had been damaged in that particular flood from being rebuilt. That ordinance gave him leverage to come up with a longer-term plan. It made no sense to keep rebuilding in the same place, Young had concluded. Some homes, then worth $30,000, had received as much as $100,000 in federal payments due to repeated losses. The mayor decided it was smarter to buy out the owners and tear down the houses. “When you have that kind of repetitive flooding, and the house is still there like a sitting duck -- it’s just stupid policy,” Young says.

The city’s plan was to pay homeowners not only what their houses had been worth before the flood, but what they’d have been worth if they hadn’t been built in a floodplain in the first place. The city would also pay moving and relocation costs, throwing in a $1,000 bonus if people moved somewhere outside of a floodplain. 

Selling the plan took a lot of work, both locally and at the federal level. Young argued that Tulsa faced significant legal exposure if it continued to approve permits in areas prone to flooding. The moratorium on rebuilding helped prod the development community and get it to agree to the new regulations. And the city was able to convince FEMA and Congress that it was cheaper in the long run to buy people out than to keep making them whole after each storm, getting the feds to kick in a sizable percentage of the cost. 

Local planners and environmentalists held what they called “wine and fees” parties, trying to convince residents and business owners it would be more cost effective in the long run if they paid monthly stormwater fees to help pay for infrastructure improvements, overseen by a stormwater management board created in response to the 1984 flood. Those fees have paid for maintenance of the concrete flood walls and detention ponds that dot the city. With the detention ponds, the city got creative -- it built floodwater basins that could also serve as recreational facilities. The students playing tennis at the University of Tulsa or the kids shooting hoops at McClure Park may not know it, but they’re standing on detention ponds. Creating open space made the idea appealing to the public. “It would have been a killer to say we’re buying land to hold water for one day every 10 years,” says Flanagan, the planner who’s designed several of the parks that are part of the flood control system.

During World War II, the Army Corps of Engineers reached a reasonable, if basic, conclusion: Oil and water don’t mix. In order to protect Tulsa’s oil operations, which were considered essential for the war effort, the Corps built a 20-mile-long levee system along the Arkansas River, protecting industry, railroad lines and housing. The barriers were thrown up fast. The levee, which was made of local clay, has been maintained since, but not updated. The seven pumping stations along the levee are dependent on the kind of parts you’d expect to find in the laboratory of an old horror movie: pulleys and levers and mercury switches of a kind that aren’t even made anymore. “Parts? There are no parts,” says Todd Kilpatrick, the levee commissioner. “We take the pieces to a machine shop and try to meld it together. Isn’t it amazing in 2017 a city is relying on this to keep it safe from floods?”

Some of the levee’s drains have been clogged for years. The levee is on the Corps’ list of facilities at “very high risk” of failure. Kilpatrick traveled to Washington this summer in search of funding. At this point, he’s seeking $100,000 in federal funds for a feasibility study to find out what updating the levee would cost. “We have an aged-out levee system that protects over $2 billion worth of assets and thousands of people,” Kilpatrick says. “You can fix this levee for a heck of a lot less than $2 billion.”

Kilpatrick is hoping that Harvey, Irma and Maria will convince Congress it makes more sense to be proactive and repair systems that are known to be at risk. But he’s not especially optimistic. Common sense would tell you it’s cheaper to prevent disaster than respond to it, but history shows that people are more willing to spend the money on response. Memories are short following a disaster. For instance, the levee was breached in 1986 in Sand Springs, just across the river from Tulsa. But when the Oklahoma University Climate Science Center sent interns out recently to interview area residents about their awareness of flood risk, many of those questioned didn’t even know they were protected by a levee. It’s hard to convince people that flooding is a real risk when the river’s dry and they’re looking at sand. When the water dries out, says Patton, the former reporter, so does the commitment. “With success come amnesia and overconfidence,” she says.

Last year, Bynum convinced voters to support a redevelopment package that includes new dams on the river to create a lake and a park that will feature construction of a new island, with an inlet for water sports. The Arkansas River is now a dry riverbed most of the time as it runs through Tulsa, with water released once a day for hydropower. Filling parts of it with water makes sense, Bynum says. He’s grateful to earlier generations of local leaders for taking creek flooding off the list of things he has to worry about. Now, he argues, it’s time to restore one of the city’s prime assets: access to the water.

Patton and some of the other old hands who crafted the city’s flood management policies feel guilty in retrospect that their plan mainly addressed creek flooding and didn’t do much to address potential dangers along the river. They worry that Bynum is making a mistake by putting obstacles into the river itself that may only worsen flooding at some later date. Young, the mayor back during the early days of the flood control efforts, is currently suing the city in hopes of blocking construction of a riverside strip mall. Bynum insists that the development will be safe and that it comports with the Corps’ master plan for the river.

But the question is always whether safe is really safe. This era of severe storms has eroded the sense that the old 100-year-flood maps are reliable. Tulsa refused a recommendation from the stormwater management board to adopt the 1986 Arkansas River flood as the flood of record. That would have required builders to elevate structures beyond that highwater mark. Last year, to remember the 30th anniversary of the storm, the city put up a sign noting where the highwater mark was. It was taken down by order of the previous mayor within 24 hours, due to political pressure from a developer who noticed that it clearly showed nearby homes would be flooded if water again reached that level. “The administration said we have to accept some level of risk,” says Robison, the longtime city engineer, who himself was flooded out in 1984. “Probably, if you put it to a vote of the people, they’d agree, because of that feeling of complacency.”

Despite the conviction among environmentalists that a great deal more must be done, the reality is that Tulsa has made great strides in protecting its residents from much of the foreseeable danger. Just ask Ted Marsh, who lives a few blocks from Mingo Creek. Back in 1984, his house took in 28 inches of stormwater. Since then, he’s done what he can to fortify the place, piling up rocks and dirt in front and back of his house, and running a pipe alongside, out to the drainage ditch. But he knows his biggest break came when the city tore down the house next to his, along with others on the block. When it rains, those grassy homesites turn into ponds, holding the water and keeping it out of Marsh’s living room.

Marsh likes things that last. He’s replaced the engine several times on a 1953 Ford that now has more than a million miles on it. He believes that, with the city’s help in creating open space along his block, his house will last, too. “I figure this will go to my son, or grandson,” he says. “I’d like to keep it in the family as long as I can.”  

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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