Fairfax Trip and Additional Comments
Alvin L. Hong
On July 25, Mike Gwinner (USGS Volunteer Scientist and retired ABRFC Hydrologist) and I met in Fairfax, Oklahoma, with William Malaski, Civil Defense Director for Osage County. The main purpose of this trip was to survey the flood damage which occurred July 17-18 (late Thursday night and early Friday morning), along Salt Creek around Fairfax. The flooding at Fairfax had been the subject of front page articles in both The Daily Oklahoman and the Tulsa World. A secondary purpose was to obtain user feedback concerning the effectiveness of the NWS warning program preceding the event.
Pertinent Geography Around Fairfax
Salt Creek flows southward through western Osage County. It begins near the Kansas border and empties into the Arkansas River near Ralston. Fairfax is located at the southern end of Salt Creek about 5 miles north of Ralston. In relationship to Salt Creek, the town of Fairfax sits on relatively high ground.
Salt Creek flows past the north side of Fairfax where the elevation increases sharply from the south bank of Salt Creek towards the town. Thus Fairfax itself tends to remain dry even when Salt Creek rises well out of its banks. Even during the Flood of 1986 (Hurricane Paine), Salt Creek did not flood homes within the Fairfax city limits.
As Salt Creek winds east of Fairfax, the elevation gradient flattens westward towards town. However, there is an old abandoned railroad embankment which tends to protect the east side of the town when Salt Creek rises well out of its banks. There are some sloughs, or low spots, where water can flow past the embankment, but Salt Creek would have to rise exceptionally high for water to flow into town through these sloughs.
Surveying Damage Around Fairfax
On July 17-18, the worst flooding occurred along the north side of Salt Creek outside of the Fairfax city limits. The broad plain that stretches north of Fairfax is the primary overflow area when Salt Creek floods. The Daily Oklahoman noted "Salt Creek, normally 20 ft wide, stretched in width for more than two miles."
Along the north side of Salt Creek, several homes are located on a road that extends eastward from the Highway 18 bridge. All of these residents were notified Thursday evening of the coming flood and most of them were evacuated. The road was completely under high water at the peak of the flood early Friday morning. It is highly unlikely these residents could have escaped by driving out later that night. Three homes suffered extensive water damage with 2 ½ ft of water in one home. Other homes had water flowing into the non-attached buildings and garages. On a separate road forking northward, the one resident was notified, but he refused to leave (He also had a shotgun). Late that night, the water reached the doorstep of his house.
Along the south side of Salt Creek, there is another road extending eastward from Highway 18. The residents on this road were evacuated Thursday evening. However, the flood waters did not reach their homes, although it flooded most of their back yards.
Mr. Malaski showed us the football and baseball fields that were inundated during the height of the flood. Both fields are located in a low-lying area north of the Highway 18 bridge. Chain link fences surrounding the fields still had grass and weeds on them which served as convenient high water marks. At one point, the debris was 5 or 6 ft above ground level.
Continuing Towards Fairfax Dam
The two homes located on the road extending west from Highway 18 towards the Fairfax Dam were flooded. The residents at one house were gone during the event. The other house had 4 ft of water in it, but the residents had evacuated before the flood waters arrived. This road was not passable during the height of the flood. Without advance notification, these residents could not have escaped (at least without a boat).
This gravel road had been washed out and covered with debris during the flood and had just been regraded. There was still debris lining the side of the road where a bulldozer had shoved it aside. The road led to the Fairfax Dam on Wild Creek (which empties into Salt Creek). The spillway of the dam had been damaged during the flood, and a construction crew was working to stabilize it from further erosion. A portion of the roadway leading to the dam had collapsed. Mr. Malaski later estimated that it will take $250,000 to repair the damage to the dam and $13,000 to repair damage to county roads in the Fairfax area.
Other Damage Not Surveyed
The remainder of the trip took us northward to Burbank. This will be covered in the next section. However, while leaving Fairfax, we saw some damage on the south side of the town. There is an embankment along the east side of Fairfax where there used to be a railroad track. During the flood, Salt Creek rose through a slough which cuts through the embankment southeast of Fairfax. This resulted in the flooding of a family center building at the Assembly of God church.
Northward to Burbank
We chose not to take Highway 18 to Burbank, but traveled instead along an old county road. We saw evidence of extensive agricultural flooding at certain points towards Burbank. We had spent so much time around Fairfax that we had to look more quickly at the damage in Burbank.
Salt Creek passes along the east side of Burbank. From Salt Creek, the elevation rises gradually for 1000 to 1500 ft going westward towards Burbank, then increases sharply. Most of Burbank rests on the higher ground. However, a small part of town is located on the lower ground to the east. Five homes there suffered water damage. The flash flood event hit quickly Thursday evening as the heavy rainfall maximum was much closer to Burbank.
Mr. Gwinner looked at both the Old Highway 60 bridge and the present Highway 60 bridge east and southeast of Burbank. He examined them as potential sites for a future river gage. Later, he examined the site at the Highway 18 bridge just north of Fairfax. His experience will allow him to advise local officials on the usefulness and the costs of establishing new river gages at these locations.
User Feedback on Products
Mr. Malaski spoke very highly of the performance of the NWS that night. Local officials knew about the flooding which would occur in Fairfax several hours in advance of the event. They were able to evacuate many people before the water entered their homes or their escape routes were cut off. Susan Dooley, Osage County District 3 secretary and long-time resident of Fairfax, said this was the worst flooding she had seen since 1986. Water had gotten into parts of the town that were unaffected by the Flood of 1986 (Hurricane Paine).
Comments and Excerpts from Selected Products
The public flood products issued preceding and during the Fairfax flood event were most timely and exceptionally well-written. Flash Flood Watches which included Osage County were issued early Thursday morning and were extended Thursday afternoon into the nighttime. The Flash Flood Warnings and Statements issued during the event certainly went beyond the generic products automatically created by SRWARN. The following examples are not meant to be all-inclusive, but they are representative of the excellent products issued during the event:
"A slow-moving upper level system has produced very heavy rains overnight... The upper system will sag slowly southward...and the heavy rains may spread over much of Osage and Pawnee counties. Runoff from the rains may cause rapid rises on creeks and streams in the area."
-- 430 a.m. Flash Flood Watch
"The area from Webb City to Shidler to Apperson will see significant flash flooding during the next 4 hours."
-- 339 p.m. Flash Flood Warning
"A slow-moving upper level system has already produced between 3 to 4 inches of rain over Osage and Pawnee counties today. More showers and thunderstorms continued to develop... increasing the threat for significant flash flooding tonight."
-- 430 p.m. Flash Flood Watch
"Salt Creek will carry much of this water southward through Fairfax. Residents along Salt Creek...from Shidler to Ralston should be ready to move to a place of safety."
-- 748 p.m. Flash Flood Warning
"Serious flooding will occur in the warned areas. All residents of western Osage and western Pawnee counties should...be prepared to act quickly!"
-- 748 p.m. Flash Flood Warning
"Runoff from the rains will continue to cause rapid rises on creeks and rivers... Motorists should be alert for the threat of flooding and washouts of streets and highways tonight... especially in parts of western Osage and Pawnee counties."
-- 845 p.m. Flash Flood Statement
Several calls were initiated during the evening of July 17 by the staff of NWSO Tulsa to Fairfax officials which further emphasized the urgency of the situation. The first one was initiated to the Fairfax Police Department after the first Flash Flood Warning at 339 p.m. The dispatcher who answered was polite, but initially skeptical. The heaviest rains were occurring well north of town, and she noted that the city is on relatively high ground in relation to Salt Creek.
A call was made to one of the local volunteer contacts in the city early that evening. Ms. Jean Fuller was very helpful in providing us with some history and local geographical considerations about Fairfax. This provided us with a little insight as to how history and geography can lead others to a degree of complacency.
A second call was made to the Fairfax Police immediately after the second Flash Flood Warning at 748 p.m. This time the NWS staff member stressed the extraordinary nature of this unusual event, emphasizing that an estimated 15 inches of rain had fallen upstream. Local officials went into action and began notifying certain residents and most responded by evacuating.
In summary, the NWS warning program performed well during the Fairfax flood event. Local city/county officials and the people of Fairfax were notified that a damaging flood was about to occur. The notification was specific and urgent, and was given in time for local officials to act. The local officials took appropriate action and a disaster was mitigated. The Fairfax flood event was a textbook example of the NWS warning program at its best.