How Tulsa Became A Model For Preventing Floods For decades, Tulsa planned carefully and imposed regulations to prevent the kind of devastating floods that used to make national headlines. Now other cities are noticing.
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How Tulsa Became A Model For Preventing Floods

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How Tulsa Became A Model For Preventing Floods

How Tulsa Became A Model For Preventing Floods

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In many cities, flooding is getting worse. A warming climate brings some areas more rain. Expanding development makes it harder for the water to drain. So what should cities do? Joe Wertz of StateImpact Oklahoma reports on what Tulsa is trying.

BILL ROBISON: And these on the right...

JOE WERTZ, BYLINE: Bill Robison pulls over and parks his city-issued car in front of a modest, single-story house on a tree-lined street in east Tulsa.

ROBISON: That's the one I haven't been able to talk to yet. So if they're home...

WERTZ: Robison is the lead engineer for Tulsa's stormwater program. His mission today - meet the owners and convince them to sell their home to the city.

ROBISON: Then I was talking to your neighbor...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes.

ROBISON: ...And she said that you might be interested but you were the owner - carry finance kind of thing...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes, we are.

ROBISON: Well, I bet we can work that out somehow.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah.

ROBISON: I know...

WERTZ: This house has changed hands a bunch of times in recent years, and it has flooded repeatedly. It's one of more than 80 homes the city is currently trying to buy. Over the last three decades, Tulsa has cleared nearly a thousand buildings from flood-prone areas.

ROBISON: Typically, after people have flooded two or three times, they're ready to sell out.

WERTZ: It's one part of a plan designed to save lives and millions of dollars. Tulsa is surprisingly vulnerable to flooding from the Arkansas River and a spiderweb of 36 creeks. In the '70s and '80s, Tulsa was hit by a string of damaging floods. Activists and the public stormed City Hall, but builders and property developers fought plans to fix flooding.

Then, in 1984, another disaster...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Torrential rains in Oklahoma leaving thousands of people homeless over the weekend.

WERTZ: More than a foot of rain left 14 people dead and hundreds injured. KWGS journalist Bill Knoll reported the story for NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BILL KNOLL, BYLINE: Eight bridges were destroyed with others suffering damage. And 64 of the city's police cars were destroyed.

WERTZ: The 1984 flood galvanized the city and made it possible to take action. Today Tulsa has one of the most aggressive flood control plans in the nation. It's one of few that accounts for urban growth in flood planning. The city built a network of drainage systems. It also created green spaces that serve as flood basins. Bill Robison pulls over and shows me one.

ROBISON: You can see there's a frisbee golf course here, walking trails and just a nice open area.

WERTZ: Tulsa enacted strict rules on where and how homes and buildings are constructed. That adds costs for developers. Ron Flanagan helped write Tulsa's flood control plan.

RON FLANAGAN: Elected officials, then, are very sensitive to the development community's wants and desires and needs.

WERTZ: To help pay for the program, the city added a fee to utility bills, which was - and remains - unpopular with many residents. But having a strict program also means Tulsans get big discounts on flood insurance.

FLANAGAN: Everything happens at the local level. And if you don't have the local people on board, you haven't got a program. The federal government can't enforce everything, and they have minimum standards.

WERTZ: Today Tulsa's flooding problems are much smaller. Other cities routinely reach out for advice. Even the State Department brings international groups to see the flood plan in action. But Flanagan worries. He says the longer Tulsa goes without a catastrophic flood, the easier it is to forget why the city needed to change its ways.

For NPR News, I'm Joe Wertz in Tulsa, Okla.

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