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Record Flood Caps Year of El Niño-Driven Damage To Illinois River Tourist Areas


Flooding December 26-28 caps off a year that saw the Illinois River damaged by extreme rainfall time after time as Oklahoma’s five-year drought gave way to a powerful El Niñothat’s been bringing strong storm systems through the state since May 2015.

Drought may be gone, but tourism is vital to the economy of northeast Oklahoma, and popular resort areas along the Illinois River near Tahlequah will certainly take a big hit after record flooding inundated them over the weekend.

Tulsa’s KOTV reports the Christmas weekend flood breaks a high water record set in 1950s on the Illinois River. Reporter Tess Maune talked with Eric Stephens, owner of War Eagle Resort, which offers bunk houses and canoe rentals to the thousands of visitors who come here to float the river each weekend during the summer.

“See the War Eagle sign, floating right here? “That’s actually screwed to my front porch,” he said. “I was born out here. I’ve lived out here 30 years and never before have I seen anything like this. It’s pretty crazy.” Stephens’ family opened War Ear Resort in the 70s and they’ve been building it into a big business on the Illinois River ever since – with canoes, rafts and cabins, many of which are now under water. “Built it from nothing; it’s kind of tough to see,” Stephens said.

And the Tulsa World‘s Corey Jones talked with a property manager for Rivercane Resort:

Flooding ravaged the property, including four cabins, a barbecue joint, an office and several other structures. A large storage building was mostly under water. Anthony Boyd, a resort property manager, estimated that there could be a few million dollars’ worth of damage, but the extent is difficult to pinpoint until the property can be inspected. Boyd said it likely will take a few weeks to determine what is salvageable and what will be knocked down to start anew.

Flooding has impacted the area since the spring. When StateImpact visited for a story in May 2015, resort owners were hard at work repairing damaged river access points. At the annual Oklahoma Governor’s Water Conference in November, State Climatologist Gary McManus put credit for the drought’s end — and blame for much of the flooding — on what’s being called ‘Godzilla El Niño.’

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership among Oklahoma’s public radio stations and relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Logan Layden is a reporter and managing editor for StateImpact Oklahoma.
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