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Teamwork Approach to Outreach and Engagement Reduces Flood Risk

In 2022, the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma received a Class 1 CRS rating from FEMA, which is the highest possible level.

City of Tulsa, Oklahoma

Tulsa, Oklahoma, has a long history with flood-related disasters and hazard mitigation planning. Decades ago, a George Washington University study identified Tulsa as the most frequently flooded city in the United States.

Challenge

Tulsa, Oklahoma, has a long history with flood-related disasters and hazard mitigation planning. Decades ago, a George Washington University study identified Tulsa as the most frequently flooded city in the United States. The city was built on the banks of the Arkansas River. It is located within “Tornado Alley,” and it regularly experiences severe storms. The city flooded every few years in the 1960s and 1970s; in 1984, a major flood killed 14 residents, injured nearly 300, and left thousands of damaged or destroyed buildings. Following the 1984 flood, there was a long break without floods which caused concern that when “the big one” hits, the storm will catch people unaware.

Solution

Approximately 40 years ago, the city mayor and activist citizens began a new approach to flood risk reduction. This long-standing, strong support from the government and citizens for flood mitigation has allowed for a continuing, voluntary home buyout program. To date, the city has bought out over a thousand homes and paid the homeowners to move to safer locations.

The city has and maintains a citywide master drainage plan and a hazard mitigation plan, both of which are used to track and measure mitigation projects. Tulsa’s hazard mitigation plan also serves as the city’s flood management plan and includes comprehensive watershed management, land use controls, voluntary buyouts and green space that doubles as stormwater detention.

A team dedicated to promoting integrated planning, higher-standard regulations, outreach and education is the key to Tulsa’s floodplain management program and hazard mitigation planning success. Citizen involvement helps encourage sound political leadership and wise long-term actions. For instance, since the 1980s the city has mailed an annual notice to people living in the floodplain to help inform them about flood insurance.

The city has a diverse Program for Public Information Committee as part of their participation in the National Flood Insurance Program’s Community Rating System (CRS). The committee includes members from the government, business community, nonprofits and others. In 2014, the committee coordinated with multiple partners to share flood risk messaging across various platforms. The committee also held workshops to get feedback on the city’s hazard mitigation plan.

The committee attended public events, including a block party, a raft race and the state fair, to stress the importance of hazard mitigation. It also created an interactive website and map for community members to learn more about hazards and flood risk. Tulsa residents can use the Map My House platform to see the geographic extents and impacts of hazards on any address in the city. In 2020, the Flood Insurance Coverage Improvement Plan was integrated into the Program for Public Information Plan, allowing for more outreach messaging coordination.

Today, Tulsa is a national leader in stormwater management and hazard risk reduction. The city continues to build on over 40 years of intensive floodplain management work. City planners prioritize outreach and engagement so that residents know about flood risk and prevention. These outreach efforts have helped Tulsa earn the highest rating in FEMA’s CRS. The CRS Class 1 designation means that Tulsa residents receive a 45% discount on their flood insurance policies. Tulsa is one of only two communities in the nation with Class 1 status.

Key Takeaways

The goal of this outreach and engagement is sustaining mitigation and prevention measures that invest in a community’s future. It is an ongoing journey and may evolve over decades.  

  1. Gain public buy-in through ongoing outreach and education efforts, especially during the hazard mitigation planning process. Longtime members of the hazard mitigation committee developed a strong relationship and attended community events together to talk about flood risks and hazard mitigation. They reached out to many stakeholders and community groups. There were multiple voices echoing the same important message.
  2. Long-term political support and regulations are needed. The hazard mitigation team instilled pride with mayors and city leaders over the last 40 years, which helped keep the flood program moving forward. Ann Patton said, “When the water dries out, so does the commitment. It’s a challenge to keep momentum high over the decades it may take to manage water resources.” Political priorities tend to shift, and staff leadership changes over time, but floodplain ordinances that were implemented in the hazard mitigation planning process can outlive any political term.
  3. Don’t rest on your laurels. The city worked hard to reduce risk. The results of a citizen survey indicated that residents feel safer now, which raises concerns that people may not take flood risk seriously anymore. Continued outreach is necessary; it must become part of the city culture.
  4. Apply to the CRS to receive flood insurance benefits with reduced flood risk. When flood risks are reduced, flood insurance premiums should be lower. The CRS allows communities to benefit from their mitigation efforts.

Related Documents and Links

In addition, a FEMA-approved hazard mitigation plan is required for certain kinds of non-emergency disaster funding. To learn more about funding eligible projects, review the Flood Mitigation Assistance Program, Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, and the new pre-disaster mitigation program Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities.

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