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Press Release

June 19, 2019

Contact: Dennis Peterson
Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center, Oklahoma Historical Society
Office: 918-962-2062

Spiro Mounds Spared by Arkansas River, Damaged by Flash Flood

SPIRO, Okla. — At 9:30 a.m. on Friday, May 24, 2019, the manager of the Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center, Dennis Peterson, was informed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the W. D. Mayo Lock and Dam, located about one-half mile from the center, that a historic amount of floodwater was on its way toward the area and a mandatory six-hour evacuation order was issued for the center and the manager’s house nearby. 

Peterson immediately notified officials at the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS), which is the parent organization for the Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center. As staff mobilized from OHS sites throughout Oklahoma, Peterson sent out a notification through Facebook to the larger community; worked with Spiro leaders to procure a truck large enough to haul artifacts, important documents and furnishings from the Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center; and started the process of packing artifacts. Meanwhile, his wife, Rhonda Peterson, left her work at the University of Arkansas–Fort Smith, picked up supplies and started working on the house. Fort Coffee citizen and Spiro Mounds retiree Huday Lee heard about the evacuation and sent out the Fort Coffee Fire Department and community 911. Soon men and women with trucks and trailers started showing up. More than 30 Fort Coffee, Spiro and Fort Smith residents turned out and completely filled a 26-foot truck and many trailers with household goods and materials from the center. David Peterson, the son of Dennis Peterson now living in Russellville, Arkansas, quickly brought a four-person crew who helped with unpacking at the temporary storage at the Spiro First United Methodist Church. 

Eight staff members from the OHS and Tim Mulvihill, archaeologist for the Fort Smith station of the Arkansas Archeological Survey, worked on the delicate task of packaging the artifacts and crating them. All day and until dark, workers were boxing, packing and hauling items from the house and center into Spiro to be stored. 

Although the evacuation took slightly more than the original six hours, it was accomplished with the generous help of neighbors and friends. “It is overwhelming to see so many in the community and region who worked so hard to save as much as possible of this national treasure,” said Dennis Peterson, wiping a tear from his eye. Over the next few days water crept into the site from the Arkansas River and covered the lower portions of the site until Wednesday, May 29, when the water was just 50 feet from the center. At this time the river crested and then started to fall. By June 3 the water was out of the Spiro Mounds impound area and still receding. 

It looked as if the center and this important archaeological site were saved. However, a little after 5 p.m. on Thursday, June 6, the Fort Coffee and Spiro area was hit by an intense rain, dumping several inches in less than an hour on already soaked ground, creating a flash flood. Water flooded the bottomland and ran through Spiro Mounds, overwhelming the layer of sandbags at the doors and covering the floor of the center with about an inch and one-half of water, leaving the floor with a thin layer of mud and soaking insulation and walls. Leaders of the Oklahoma Historical Society were notified and again staff of the OHS was called to the Spiro Mounds to start cleaning up the mess. The damage, while not very deep, was significant to the structure, and Phoenix Restoration Services was contracted by the OHS to take the damaged flooring, soaked drywall and insulation out and repair the center for safe usage. 

The house was not flooded, although the water came within five feet, so manager Dennis Peterson has moved back in to oversee the site during the restoration. “While we were preparing for the return of the artifacts before the flooding, we were lucky that almost everything was already out of the building, and that the water only got in a couple of inches and didn’t destroy the display cases,” said Rillis Howard, director of construction and maintenance for the OHS. “Although the center will be closed to the public for about five weeks, it will reopen better than before.”    

When asked about the effect on the programming at the site, Dennis Peterson said, “This is going to be tough. Summer is our peak season, and we have our Summer Solstice Walks of the site on June 21, where hundreds of people normally come to learn about the mounds site, the Caddoan culture and observe the solstice alignment of the mounds. We will still have those tours, but will not have use of the center. Instead, everything will start and finish outdoors under the big, historic water oak at the entrance of the center.” 

Peterson and his family would like to heartily thank each individual who helped in this time of flooding: the wonderful people of Fort Coffee, especially the Fort Coffee Volunteer Fire Department, along with those who helped from Spiro, Fort Smith, Russellville and throughout Oklahoma. The hard work of the Oklahoma Historical Society staff and family has been invaluable. 

If you would like more information about the Summer Solstice Walks on June 21 or how you can help in the future of the Spiro Mounds, please check the Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center Facebook page or contact Dennis Peterson at spiro@okhistory.org. You can also donate to the Spiro Mounds by going to the Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center page at www.okhistory.org/sites/spiromounds and clicking the “Give Now” button.

Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center is a division of the Oklahoma Historical Society. The mission of the Oklahoma Historical Society is to collect, preserve and share the history and culture of the state of Oklahoma and its people. Founded in 1893 by members of the Territorial Press Association, the OHS maintains museums, historic sites and affiliates across the state. Through its research archives, exhibits, educational programs and publications the OHS chronicles the rich history of Oklahoma. For more information about the OHS, please visit www.okhistory.org.


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