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Caddo County, Oklahoma

Overview


Caddo is a rural county located in the southwest region of Oklahoma. Small towns such as Anadarko, with a population of 7,000 people, are scattered around the many farms and energy operators (including oil, natural gas, and wind) that dominate the land area. Caddo County is also home to multiple American Indian First Nations, many of whom have lived there for generations, but only after being forced off their ancestral lands. 

One legacy of 19th century federal policy is that the county is still checkerboarded in places, so that First Nations, such as Caddo Nation, do not have continuous property rights, but rather a patchwork of city, county, and private jurisdictions. To make matters even more complicated, Caddo County has some of the worst weather in the United States. Since 1982, Caddo County, Okla., has had 30 FEMA disaster declarations.* And that’s only scratching the surface.

* For our research purposes we looked at Major Disaster and Emergency declarations, but did not include fire management declarations. We also filtered out any disaster declarations that were not weather-related, such as oil spills or terrorist attacks.

Ice storms are one of the most damaging storm types for Caddo. During ice storms, one of the biggest threats is the accumulation of ice on power lines—the weight of which can pull down lines, even the poles themselves, and cause widespread power outages. Two ice storms of this nature, for example, occurred in Caddo County during November and December 2015. The local power companies estimated that the November ice storm knocked out power for 14,397 customers and cost $2.1 million—a significant number considering the county only has a population of 29,300.

Blizzards, too, are dangerous in Caddo. One especially damaging storm on Christmas Eve in 2009 was both powerful and ill-timed, causing one emergency manager to call it “one of the most widespread and damaging blizzards to affect Oklahoma in decades.” In Caddo County, five to seven inches of snow fell, accompanied by winds of up to 60 mph. In nearby Oklahoma City, all interstates around and inside the city were shut down, which caused thousands of people to be stuck in their cars for hours. More cars than usual were on the road due to the holiday and some drivers made the rash decision to abandon their vehicles and walk. This dangerous decision also caused the cleanup to slow down due to the difficulty of clearing the snow with stranded cars on the roads.

Floods were the second most common weather disaster in Caddo County, but the most bizarre and powerful flood to hit Caddo County actually began as a tropical storm. In August 2007, Tropical Storm Erin struck the Gulf of Mexico before moving southwest into the United States. Once on land, the storm was downgraded to a tropical depression, but days later the storm regained its power as it moved over southwest and central Oklahoma (some called it a “second eye of the storm”). Without much warning, the region received a momentous amount of rain. In Caddo County, 9.3 inches of rain fell within a 24 hour period. Creeks and rivers were overflowing and highways became impassable—some roads reported rushing water up to a foot in depth—creating fatal conditions for drivers. Unfortunately, four people died in Caddo from the floods. There were also successful water rescues, including of a mother and her two children, who were swept off the road while driving. The flooding became so severe that 150 bridges, in addition to roads, had to be closed, and at least 100 homes sustained water damage—a significant impact for a small, rural county.

Caddo County Severe Weather Timeline

Tornadoes can also be a force to be reckoned with in Caddo, but potentially less so than the other weather types. Since 1982, Caddo County has had five tornado-related FEMA declarations. However, this is a fairly small number of declarations relative to the large number of tornadoes that continuously occur in Caddo County. In fact, according to the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, Caddo County had the highest number of recorded tornadoes in Oklahoma since 1950—109 tornadoes in total. This may not even be the complete total as some tornadoes go unnoticed, particularly in rural areas.

So why are FEMA declarations for tornadoes so few in Caddo County? One rationale can be illustrated by the tornado event that occurred on May 3, 1999. On that day, Caddo had 11 tornadoes in just over two hours. The tornadoes ranged in intensity, including seven F0 tornadoes, two F1, one F2, and one F3. A few houses were damaged, three people were injured, and barns, powerlines, and trees were knocked down. Even though Caddo had nearly one fifth of the tornadoes during the storm event—which impacted over 20 counties—the county accounted for only .4 percent of the 675 injuries and none of the 40 fatalities. This could mean that Caddo County is well-prepared for tornadoes, but perhaps also that tornadoes have less of an impact on rural areas, compared to urban areas with more structures and higher population density.

Finally, agriculturally-dependent Caddo is also heavily affected by droughts. The above graph from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows the frequency, intensity, and extent of droughts in Caddo County since 2000. From this graph, it is easy to see that Caddo County is no stranger to water stress, and in fact lived through a prolonged and intense drought just recently. From the end of 2010 to mid-2015, Caddo County had a nearly non-stop drought ranging from abnormally dry to exceptional drought. The only break came in the middle of 2012, but unfortunately, the drought came back with extreme intensity a few months later. In fact, from 2006 to 2016 Caddo County recorded 62 months of drought. This means that the county had a drought classification (of varying severity) for more than half of that 10-year time period. To make matters worse, when the rain did come back in mid-2015, that was problematic, too. In May and June 2015, heavy rains plagued the county and caused multiple flash floods. During the May floods, one highway was reported to have up to four feet of flood water on it, and multiple passengers had to be water rescued from their vehicles. Two FEMA declarations were issued in two months due to the floods—an extreme change from the years-long drought Caddo was experiencing so shortly before.

Ice Storms

“Honestly, weather is one of the least of our worries,” stated Michael Attocknie, the tribal administrator for Caddo Nation, an American Indian First Nation headquartered in Caddo County, Oklahoma. 

This frank admission halfway through our conversation with Attocknie came as a surprise, given that Caddo County, by the numbers, appears to have some of the worst weather in the United States. There are tornadoes—the highest frequency recorded in Oklahoma, a notable feat in the tornado alley state. There are ice storms that weigh down power lines and knock out electricity to a scattered, rural population. There are floods. There are droughts. A hurricane even traveled up from the Gulf of Mexico not so long ago, bringing a heavy downpour when the eye reformed right over Caddo.

“In a rural area, people learn to live on their own, because you have to. You know that if a storm happens, you need to handle it. Here, we are used to it, we are ready for it.”

No matter what type of weather system we asked about, however, Attocknie and Polly Edwards, Caddo Nation’s emergency manager and environmental director, just listened politely and reassured us it was nothing to lose sleep over. “In a rural area, people learn to live on their own, because you have to. You know that if a storm happens, you need to handle it. Here we are used to it, we are ready for it,” soothed Attocknie.

There’s more to it than just rural hardiness, however. “We live with our families, we live with our grandparents,” Attocknie noted. “Because we live like this, stories can be passed down, and knowledge is shared.” Edwards added, “For Caddo people, resiliency is bred into them.”

Edwards certainly has a point: Caddo peoples have lived with the weather in this region for a long time (archaeological evidence dates back at least 2,500 years).

For generations, the Caddo were a large network of people, whose homeland originally spanned modern day northeast Texas, northwest Louisiana, southwest Arkansas, and southeast Oklahoma. With the arrival of European and then American settlers, the Caddo went from being a populous society of many groups and dialects to only a few hundred refugees. In 1868, after many years of displacement, they were resettled in Oklahoma, two hundred miles west of the heart of their homeland. A 19th century law (the Dawes Act), intended to force native integration into U.S. culture, checkerboarded the area into plots as small as 40 acres, mandating ownership of some plots to non-native settlers. (No brief paragraph from an outsider could do justice to the history of the Caddos. We encourage you to read more here and here.)

Today, the Caddo Nation can claim 5,000 members. “We are still worrying about white encroachment,” acknowledged Attocknie, but his biggest concern is “social issues, like obesity, heart disease, and food deserts.” Poverty and unemployment rates in Caddo County are well above the national average, as well. In other words, it’s not the weather that’s the problem, per se, but rather the underlying, systemic social challenges.

Take ice storms, for example. In Caddo County, ice storms are not frequent, but they are one of the most significant weather events because they affect such a wide area, reaching even the most remote corners of the county. For the Caddo people who live in Caddo County (some have spread out to Kansas or other areas, but are still affiliated with the Nation), ice storms are also serious because they can weigh down power lines and cause power outages. Given the hazardous conditions, dispersed population, and large area, power restoration can be a challenge.

A power outage of days or even weeks is not necessarily a catastrophe, though. Many residents have strong social networks, so vulnerable individuals (elderly residents, for example) often have neighbors looking after them. Plus, nearly everyone knows to prepare when a storm is coming. Again, Attocknie asserted, “It is a natural part of our life that we need to prepare for winter. We are used to it.” Even so, Edwards is working to establish a Caddo Nation mass communication system for such emergency situations.

If the Caddo Nation wants to pipe potable water to their members and other nearby tribes in Southwest Oklahoma, Michael Attocknie has to negotiate with every jurisdiction on the checkerboard.

Ice storms do lay bare, however, an underlying social vulnerability.  Many Caddo people depend on well water, so no power means no water, which can be dangerous, especially for individuals who already have health issues. When that happens, Polly Edwards is in charge of finding ways to get water to people who need it, a difficult task in hazardous conditions. So, what starts out as bad weather can become a health crisis. Moreover, this health crisis extends at a slower burn under blue skies, given that the well water is untreated. Edwards, who is also the environmental manager, noted that there are concerns that the water may be contaminated.

Fortunately, there is a freshwater aquifer under Caddo Nation, which the tribal leaders plan to tap. Unfortunately, such large infrastructure projects are costly, a challenge for many sparsely populated rural areas. Caddo Nation also has to contend with laws such as the Dawes Act and the Jerome Agreement, which remain in force, as well as competing claims from other Indian nations, cities, and the state. That means that if the Caddo Nation wants to pipe potable water to their members and other nearby tribes in Southwest Oklahoma, Michael Attocknie has to negotiate with every jurisdiction on the checkerboard—and some not even on the board.

So, while an ice storm is a severe weather event no one looks forward to, true resilience to it is complicated in a place like Caddo County because the nature of the vulnerability is complicated. On the other hand, if the tribal administration is addressing the chronic challenges of obesity, poverty, and vulnerable drinking water supplies in their community, they’re also de facto building resilience to severe weather.