National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce

Active Weather Continues in the West; Potent Cold Front to Move Through the East this Weekend

A complex weather system will continue to bring active conditions over the Western U.S. through early Saturday, including more heavy snowfall through the Rockies. Farther east, a potent cold front will advance through the Ohio Valley Saturday, bringing rain and a few strong thunderstorms. As the front clears the east coast on Sunday, colder and gusty conditions will return. Read More >

                  May 26-27, 1984 Tulsa, OK Memorial Day Flash Flood

 

Overview Event Maps Rainfall and Streamflow
Flooded Creeks Impacts on Tulsa References
Weather Events Webpage  NWS Tulsa Homepage  Click on Images for larger view
Flood Safety and Preparedness Information and Links to Significant Floods in OK and AR History
Have a first hand account or pictures from this event?  Send them to us, and we will include some of these stories on this webpage.

 

 

Overview

The 1984 Memorial Day Flood was the worst flood event in the Tulsa’s history. It was caused by a 6”-15” deluge from a stalled cold front, affecting the Tulsa metropolitan area and centered near McClure Park. All of this rain fell during an 8 hour period from 20:30 May 26 to 04:30 May 27, 1984. The entire Mingo Creek basin received at least 9” of rain during this event. There were 14 fatalities, 6 of which were auto related, and 288 injuries. More than 5,500 buildings were damaged or destroyed, including more than 20 schools. 7,000 vehicles were destroyed or severely damaged, and many roads and bridges were also destroyed or heavily damaged. The damages were set at $180 million ($406 million in 2013 dollars). Mingo Creek alone accounted for $125 million of the damages. President Ronald Reagan issued a major-disaster declaration for this event.

Image Credit: Tulsa's 1984 Flood "From Harm's Way: Flood-hazard mitigation in Tulsa, Oklahoma"

Flooded Tulsa streets
Event Maps From: Bergman and Tortorelli-Flood of May 26-27, 1984, Tulsa, Oklahoma 1:96,000 and 1:48,000 MAP HA-707 Hydrologic Investigations Atlas Published by the USGS, 1988. (Click on image for a larger view in a new window.)
 USGS inundation map
 USGS isohyets map

cars in flood waters along Mingo Creek tributary


Rainfall and Streamflow

Rainfall during this event was recorded by the National Weather Service at the Tulsa International Airport and at 15 rain gages throughout the city operated by the Tulsa City Engineering Department. Rainfall depths from these gages exceeded the 1% annual chance recurrence interval for durations of 1 to 8 hours throughout much of the metro area. Peak flood discharges were also greater than the 1% annual chance recurrence interval at 7 out of 9 sites measured. The peak unit discharge computed for Mill Creek in McClure Park exceeds any known unit discharge in Oklahoma (as of 1988). Measured rainfall totals ranged from 3.4” in southwest Tulsa to more than 12” at 3 locations in the east-central section of the city, and several unofficial reports of as much as 15” were plausible.

Image: “On the Mingo Creek tributary called Cooley, the 1984 flood ripped units from these apartments and tossed cars like toys. In this photo, taken as water recedes the morning after the 1984 Memorial Day flood, neighbors wade toward the cars to check for bodies. This photo was taken upstream from Holiday Mobile Home Park, another center of treacherous problems during the flood.” Credit: Tulsa World article in "From Harm's Way: Flood-hazard mitigation in Tulsa, Oklahoma"
Flooded Creeks

Mingo Creek in its unimproved reaches, particularly its tributaries, sustained the most concentrated devastation. Others having major flooding included: Flatrock Creek and its tributary Dirty Butter, Coal, Little Joe, and upper Haikey in eastern and southeastern Tulsa County.

In West Tulsa, Blackboy and Harlow Creeks overflowed levees into residential and business areas, and at their confluence and entry to a common structure under the Arkansas River levee, there was major damage to the structure and levee.

Bird Creek saw minor flooding above the Sperry gage, being fed in its Owasso to Catoosa reach primarily from flood inflows beginning with Flatrock Creek. Its major contributor was the Mingo Creek drainage basin. Fifty-six homes in Catoosa were flooded by the Bird Creek rise, probably reinforced by Spunky Creek.

 

Image Credit: "From Harm's Way: Flood-hazard mitigation in Tulsa, Oklahoma"

series of images showing flood rescues

image of Tulsa World front page about flood

Image Credit: Tulsa World article in "From Harm's Way: Flood-hazard mitigation in Tulsa, Oklahoma"

Impact on Tulsa

This flood came on the heels of numerous floods in Tulsa during the 1960s and 1970s. Therefore, the Tulsa mayor and street commissioner immediately assembled the city's first Flood Hazard Mitigation Team, and a new approach to Tulsa flood response and recovery was developed. As ultimately completed, the program included relocation of 300 flooded homes and a 228-pad mobile home park, $10.5 million in flood control works, and $2.1 million for master drainage plans. The total capital program topped $30 million, mostly from local capital sources, flood insurance claim checks, and federal funds.

The work didn't end with the initial flood response and recovery. In fact, it was only the first step in a long and continuing journey to make Tulsa floodsafe. The 1984 flood also persuaded Tulsans that a coordinated, comprehensive stormwater management program was needed. The Department of Stormwater Management in 1985 centralized responsibility for all city flood, drainage, and stormwater programs. A stormwater utility fee was established by ordinance in 1986 to operate the program. The utility fee ensures stable funds for maintenance and management. The ordinance allots the entire fee exclusively for floodplain and stormwater management activities.

In the early 1990s, FEMA ranked Tulsa first in the nation for its floodplain management program, allowing Tulsans to enjoy the nation's lowest flood insurance rates.

 

First Hand Accounts and Pictures from those who experienced this flood:
From Kell McClung:  "We lived near 15th and Garnet. Tupelo Creek as it was called ran right through the middle of the neighborhood.  It often ran bank full in heavy rains, however, that night it became a raging river.  Houses on either side of it had 4 to 6 feet of water in them.  One house that was directly to the east of the bridge on 15th St. had water up to the ceiling!  The water came literally within inches of coming in the back door.  I remember me and my dad standing outside waving cars off, not to try to go down 15th St. any further as they would be driving directly into the water.  However, one individual, who I believe was perhaps under the influence of something! decided that he would attempt to drive in anyway.  The results were predictable as his car was swept off to the north and down into a wooded area.  We were extremely worried as it was dark and we could not see where the car went.  However, minutes later this guy popped up out of the water hanging onto a tree and somehow managed to get back up to an area where he could walk to where we were standing.  He had this look like "what just happened"!  Obviously, he was extremely lucky.  After the waters had subsided, there was an incredible amount of debris stacked under the bridge at 15th St. near 116th St. East Avenue. Parts of cars, mailboxes, clothes, and even part of an upright piano were lodged under the bridge!  I often wondered where the piano came from. Since then, a large area to the north of 15th St. was part of Tulsa's flood control project.  The entire area was turned into a large detention pond, and since then the floodwaters seem to have been tamed.  However, we all know that Oklahoma's weather is extremely unpredictable, and a large flood could occur again at any time.  Hopefully with the improvements that have been made over the years, this type of tragedy wouldn't occur again.  But anything is possible."
From Kevin W. Pierce: "I was living near 31st & Memorial at the time. When I heard that it was flooding at the intersection there, I went to the OHP Troop B Headquarters that was stationed there.  Water was creeping up to the doorway, and I helped remove a bunch of file cabinets before they got flooded.  By morning, flood waters were up to my doorstep, and it seemed like everybody's trash cans ended up in my backyard."
From Fredric Chambers: "Remember it quite well, was on duty at the fire station that night.  Can't tell how many people we pulled from some very fast moving water.  Worked either 3 or 4 house fires as a single engine company (only 3 of us, everyone else was doing the same thing in other places around town).  Next morning, we were called back to the station so the on-coming shift could relieve us.  We were Completely worn out by then.  Early on that night I had messed up my ankle.  By the time we got relieved the next day, my foot had swollen so much, had a heck of a time getting the boot off.  City medical chewed me out for a bit and then pulled me off on injury leave."
From Jerry Hensley: "Working that night on Engine 24.  Pulled several people out of Dirty Butter Creek."
From Michael Keller: "I lived near 21st & Harvard and was visiting a friend near 36th.  Foolishly, I decided to try to go home, but couldn't get past the bridge at 26th.  It was raining so hard that I got lost trying to go around the bridge, toward Lewis.  Finally, I ended up waiting in the parking near Steve's Sundry for the rain to abate enough to go back to my friend's place.  While there, I watched an abandoned car become nearly fully immersed under the bridge.  The traffic signal had malfunctioned so badly that it was solid yellow.  The next day, I toured some of the flooded areas after the water had subsided.  I remember most clearly seeing cars along Mingo Road piled one atop another."
From Janet Hensley Rhit: "This was a night I will never forget.  I was working at 21st and Garnett at the Pizza Hut, and we did not have a radio and all we knew was it had been raining hard all night.  I lived at 71st and Sheridan and was trying to get home.  It took me 3 hours."
From Kellye Madden Faulkner: "I lived in an apartment at 31st and Mingo.  Lost everything in it plus my car.  Just grateful my son, who was a baby at the time, and I survived."
From Mike Bailey: "Yeah, still very vivid memories.  My parents' house flooded, and their car was swept up in the current.  I couldn't get to them until the next morning because of the water level.  It looked like a war zone when I got there."
From Debbie Flowers Hennigan: "This was the flood myself, Tony, and our 2 boys were in!  Lost everything we had including our car! Our apartment building was right next to Mingo Creek. Water reached the ceiling in our downstairs apartment!!!"
From Christopher Stevens: "Was at the midnight movie at Admiral and Sheridan with 3 friends.  Took 11th and Mingo route home.  Flood waters rose in minutes and floated my car down the street into a motel parking lot where we took refuge until the waters got even higher.  We were forced to wade out to higher ground by Eastwood Church.  Nearly lost our lives that night.  An experience I will never forget."
 

 

References

This event summary includes information from the National Weather Service, City of Tulsa, and U.S. Geological Survey.

City of Tulsa

Bergman and Tortorelli-Flood of May 26-27, 1984, Tulsa, Oklahoma 1:96,000 and 1:48,000 MAP HA-707 Hydrologic Investigations Atlas Published by the USGS, 1988.

Images from “From Harm’s Way: Flood-hazard mitigation in Tulsa, Oklahoma” by Ann Patton, December 1993

Eyewitness story: David Averill, Tulsa World