In the last week of September 1986, heavy rainstorms had dumped between four to six inches of water across the state of Oklahoma. Flooding along creeks and rivers was rampant and most were feeding into the Arkansas River which is the largest western tributary of the Mississippi River.

It’s likely that few people in Oklahoma were paying any attention to a tropical depression forming on the western coast of Guatemala. Most of those storms moved west out over the Pacific Ocean and didn’t threaten land or make headlines. But this storm was different.

For a time the system moved west but then veered north toward the Mexico coast. On Sept. 30, it was upgraded to a tropical storm, but it quickly intensified. When its winds topped 80 miles per hour just as it made landfall in Mexico, it was upgraded again to hurricane status. The storm was aptly named Hurricane Paine.

On Oct. 1, the hurricane veered even further right and traveled in a northeastward direction. It lost some of its strength overland but was still producing copious amounts of rainfall. Paine was heading right for Oklahoma.

As the storm moved over Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri it dropped upwards of 11 inches of rain in a very short time period. The already saturated area began to see record rises in river levels. Towns like Miami on the Neosho, Bartlesville on the Caney and Oklahoma City on the Canadian were inundated, and mandatory evacuations were ordered.

Along the Arkansas much of the low land was already flooded before Paine reached the Three Forks area. The Corps of Engineers had the tricky task of releasing enough water from upstream dams such as Keystone to minimize flooding above the reservoir but not so much that it would exacerbate flooding downstream.

They began with a release of 50,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) from the Keystone Dam. They predicted that worst case scenarios would require them to release 150,000 cfs. But the inflow of water into Keystone Reservoir eventually forced a release of 310,000 cfs to keep the lake from spilling over the dam. Such levels hadn’t been seen since the reservoir system was created in the 1960s. These levels set the benchmark by which future floods would always be measured.

One by one, bridges over the Arkansas River were closed, towns were evacuated and massive flooding occurred. The entire town of Webbers Falls was emptied. The president of the Webbers Falls bank later recalled how she prepared for the expected flood. She and the bank employees moved all equipment and furnishings that would fit into the bank’s vault. Then after it was closed and locked she added tube after tube of caulk around the door frame. She was happy to report that the vault remained dry even though the bank building was inundated.

The Paine of ’86 was not the first flood the Three Forks area has experienced and quite obviously not the last. But Oklahomans have always proven that they are overcomers. Perhaps they have learned to find hope in Psalm 66. 

“We went through the fire and through the water, but You brought us out to a place of abundance.”

Reach Jonita Mullins at jonita.mullins@gmail.com.

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