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Rain, Trains, And Automobiles: Widespread Flooding Affects Transportation, Landscaping

Barges are docked at the Tulsa Port of Catoosa.
Kirby Lee Davis
The Journal Record
Barges are docked at the Tulsa Port of Catoosa.

It seems like there’s no corner of the state that stayed dry over the past month as heavy rainfall dumped nearly two dozen inches of water in some cities and towns.

The widespread devastation is affecting interstate commerce and transportation across Oklahoma. Storms damaged several locks along the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System between Oklahoma and its eastern neighbor.

Adam Brooks, the managing editor at The Journal Record, says barge traffic in and out of Tulsa’s Port of Catoosa could be halted for up to two weeks.

“Really even besides the damage, there's just been too much water,” Brooks said. ”The flow rates on the Verdigris River have been 40 times higher than the usual amounts.”

The Journal Record’s Kirby Lee Davis reports the two week delay comes on top of cutbacks to the shipping industry caused by the falling price of oil earlier this year.

Barges traveling Oklahoma’s portion of the McClellan-Kerr system handled 1.9 million total tons through the first four months of 2015, down from 2.17 million tons the prior year. The Port of Catoosa handled 663,790 tons on 412 barges in the first four months of 2015, down 29.9 percent from 947,873 tons on 555 barges over the same period a year ago. Unlike shifts driven by commodity prices, [Tulsa Port of Catoosa Director Robert W.] Portiss said rainfall-spurred delays may simply shift traffic, and resulting revenues, around on the calendar. He said it was hard to say what the bottom-line impact would be.

“A lot of these goods can wait a couple weeks to go out,” Brooks said. “And if not, they've also got access to rail and trucks from the Port of Catoosa.”

But rail transportation has also been affected by the once-in-a-generation flooding event. Purcell bore the brunt of the flood damage after Sunday’s storms, and aerial footage showed floodwaters along the banks of the Canadian River covering all those railroad tracks that pass under the James C. Nance Bridge that connects Purcell and Lexington.

The Journal Record’s Brian Brus says the washed-out railways aren’t just affecting freight lines, but also passenger service.

As rail operators surveyed damage incurred over the last two weeks, passengers with tickets for the Amtrak Heartland Flyer line between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas, were instead being placed on buses over the last few weeks. And the head of the regional chamber of commerce said Purcell, where tracks were temporarily out of service over the holiday weekend, was struggling with flooded businesses and the loss of tourism revenue. The Oklahoma Department of Transportation owns about 215 miles of track and leases it to freight and passenger train operators. Although ODOT is not typically considered a regulatory agency with rail oversight responsibilities, the ownership stake means officials sometimes require Amtrak to err on the side of caution when it comes to the public’s safety, Rail Programs Division Manager Craig Moody said. That means the company provides buses at its own cost and warns consumers of schedule changes with as much advance time as possible.

“The Farmrail track, which is in southwest Oklahoma, probably needs to be rebuilt in some places,” Brooks said. “And it affects a lot of commerce. There are about 50-100 trains running through the state each day.”

Recent heavy rain leaves standing water on the lot of Marcum’s Nursery at 2121 SW 119th St. in Oklahoma City.
Credit Brent Fuchs / The Journal Record
The Journal Record
Recent heavy rain leaves standing water on the lot of Marcum’s Nursery at 2121 SW 119th St. in Oklahoma City.

Landscape Losses

You’d think that nearly two dozen inches of rain would be a boon for landscapers, nursery operators, and tree and sod farmers. But Brooks says it’s actually been a mixed bag.

“Canadian Valley Sod told us that they've got silt and water on their farms, which is really good. But if it's not sunny, if it doesn't dry out a bit then the grass can't break through,” Brooks said. “Northcutt’s [Greenlawn] Nursery [in Lexington] said their lawn crews can't get any work because it's too wet to cut grass. But their tree farm is doing great and they're not having to pay for irrigation this year. Marcum's Nursery also said the weather just means people can't get out in their yards and plant stuff. So they're buying less, which hurts their business.”

Brus reports cooler-than-seasonal temperatures haven’t helped either.

Just before the rains, temperatures dropped as Roberts’ grasses broke out of their winter dormancy. But Bermuda loves heat. He said many of his peers haven’t seen their crops turn green yet. “We’ll bounce back as soon as the weather breaks,” he said. “The problem is that there won’t be as much supply this year and prices will go up – the supply-and-demand equation works everywhere.”

The Business Intelligence Report is a collaborative news project between KGOU and The Journal Record.

As a community-supported news organization, KGOU relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online, or by contacting our Membership department.

The Journal Record is a multi-faceted media company specializing in business, legislative and legal news. Print and online content is available via subscription.

Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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