Since 1996, more than 30 of the U.S.’s most expensive weather disasters have hit Tulsa. Though Tulsa was not always the eye of the storm, the unusually high number of damaging weather events indicates that the county lies on an unrelenting and varied storm path. Over 20 years, Tulsa has seen the likes of tornadoes, heatwaves, wildfires, hail and severe wind events, droughts, floods, and blizzards.
Often times, these storm types can intersect in disastrous ways going from one extreme to the next. For example, from July 2012 to May 2015 Tulsa experienced 24 months of exceptional (D4), extreme (D3), or severe (D2) drought. Once the dry spell officially broke in May 2015, the weather rebounded powerfully with widespread heavy rains, which caused major flooding throughout the remainder of the month. The May 2015 floods shut down highways, inundated farms, and closed down numerous businesses. Then in December, the rains continued, and resulted in nine flood incidents across Tulsa County. The heavy winter rains broke a daily rainfall record and caused Tulsa to have its second wettest December ever recorded—only a few months after the county was plagued by prolonged drought.
However, the most notorious flooding event in Tulsa occurred Memorial Day weekend 1984. A severe storm brought 24 hours of nonstop rain that averaged 9.35 inches, with some areas measuring up to 14 inches. Intense floods spread across the city, damaging thousands of homes and businesses, killing 14 people, and ultimately cost between $150-180 million. After the storm subsided, the public outrage grew, and resulted in a $140 million flood prevention project to ensure this flood severity never occurred again.
In terms of tornadoes, Tulsa typically sees lower level classifications (EF0 and EF1), which can usually be managed without fatalities or much damage. Yet even these weaker tornadoes can cause significant destruction when they hit in a populated area. In March 2016 an EF2 tornado traveled across Tulsa for 10.5 miles and caused damage to over 300 homes, injured seven people, and hit multiple churches, businesses, and barns. On another occasion, an EF1 tornado just 80 yards wide touched down for only .4 miles—next to the Tulsa international airport. The small tornado and its strong winds damaged airplanes, cars, and an airport hotel in a matter of minutes. The strongest tornado to hit Tulsa, however, was an EF4 in 1993, which touched down in northeast Tulsa and traveled for 5.5 miles. The EF4 also was accompanied by an EF3 tornado and together they injured 130 people and caused $100 million in damage.
Heatwaves can also be a fatal and frequent occurrence in Tulsa. Beginning as early as May and peaking in frequency in August, heatwaves can cause hundreds of heat-related illnesses within just a few days. In June and July 1998, 452 people reported heat-related illnesses in Oklahoma. In Tulsa, at least five people died, including two 40-year-men and a 39-year-old woman. Another heatwave hit Tulsa in August 2007 while the city hosted the PGA Championship. Reportedly, 1,000 fans went to the first aid stand for heat-related illnesses, a fourth of which were deemed serious. In the city of Tulsa even more people were treated for heat illnesses and two elderly men died.
On the opposite side of the weather spectrum, severe snowstorms also have a devastating impact on Tulsa. During the Groundhog Day blizzard in February 2011, a half-inch of sleet fell in Tulsa before twelve to sixteen inches of snow quickly blew on top. Across Tulsa County there was near zero visibility as 35 mph winds whipped the snow in all directions and created large snowdrifts. Businesses, schools, highways, and the airport shut down, multiple schools and a casino had roofs collapse from the weight of the snow, boat docks and boats were damaged or destroyed on Grand Lake, and hundreds of traffic accidents occurred.