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How much rain can Tulsa handle? Not as much as you think

John Smallwood's old property is in a flood plain

If you talk to people who know about flooding, they’ll tell you Tulsa is a ‘can-do’ city. It’s a place that saw its problems a long time ago, came up with a plan and did something to fix them.

If you’re too young to remember how things used to be, Channel 8’s Investigative team dug back into the archives to look at the 1984 Memorial Day Flood. Nearly 35 years ago, major highways, homes and roads were covered in water. In an eight-hour period, 15-inches of rain dumped on Tulsa, pushing the city to the breaking point.

It's a day John Smallwood will never forget.

“I opened the garage door and said let the water have it, don’t start filling up the house,” said Smallwood.

Smallwood remembers being puzzled when someone later showed him his house on a chart and suggested he should have known a flood would hit him someday.

“That little squiggly on the map, I was like what’s that?” said Smallwood. “He said that’s the original creek bed. I said that’s also my backyard.”

To this day, thousands of Tulsans are living in a flood plain or near one, including Smallwood. His new home is in South Tulsa, near 91st and Garnett, right across the street from him is a flood plain.

“Really? I did not know that,” said Smallwood.

In the Brookside area, near 45th and Rockford, Frank Pollock’s house is right inside another potential danger zone.

“This whole area is a flood plain, but you can tell it slopes all the way to the freeway,” said Pollock.

Right down 6th street in the Pearl district is also in a flood plain.

The point is, in spite of the many improvements across Tulsa since 1984, another flood like this one could happen tomorrow and Tulsans wouldn't be prepared for it.

City engineers design flood control projects based on the potential of a “100-year flood.” However, if Tulsa were to get nine inches of rain in 24 hours, people living in a flood plain would be flooded. Take a look at the map below, all the green areas are in a flood plain.

“There’s a perception that we’ve fixed all of our flooding problems and we have not,” said city engineer, Brad Jackson. “We’ve done a lot but the flooding problem is always going to be there.”

For decades, the City of Tulsa has approached floods by managing the water, giving it ways to run off quickly with as little damage as possible.

The comprehensive stormwater management program has been tested time and time again. Jackson said the threat lingers because as they discovered Houston, sometimes there’s just too much water to manage.

“All over town we have issues and projects that need to be funded,” said Jackson.

When it comes to homes, sometimes the best solution is to just buy out the owner and stop trying to beat the flood. The city partners with the federal government to purchase homes in a flood plain. Jackson said they’ve purchased and torn down about 150 homes so far.

“This is one house that was flooded several times,” said Jackson, pointing to a now empty lot in East Tulsa.

John Smallwood moved out of his home in 1984 and learned a valuable lesson… the importance of flood insurance and to never underestimate the power of water.

Click here to see the City of Tulsa's flood map.

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