‘100-year flood’

Rainfall, snowmelt combine to swell rivers with disastrous consequences

Folks who have called Utah's Dixie home for several decades have long looked for a "100-year-flood" in the region framed by the Santa Clara and Virgin rivers, inundating the area in water volumes reached only once a century.

Now they've witnessed it. "This is the largest flood I've ever seen come down the washes," said life-long southern Utah resident David Terry, 55.

A disastrous combination of heavy rainfall and deep, mountain snowmelt engorged and overflowed the Santa Clara and Virgin rivers Jan. 10-11. Twenty-two Church-member owned homes were lost to the Santa Clara River as raging waters reached and then quickly eroded foundations. Residents remain haunted by the scenes of once-sturdy houses tumbling and collapsing like flotsam into the muddy torrents.

"It's something I never want to see again," said Santa Clara Utah Stake President Paul Graf, whose stake lost several homes.

No Church members were killed or seriously injured in the flooding. Still, many displaced families have been forced to find shelter with friends, relatives or at motels, Church meetinghouses and municipal facilities. No Church meetinghouses were damaged. A small Church Welfare orchard in Santa Clara was flooded. A pair of sheds and several fruit trees were destroyed.

The floodwaters exacted much of their toll on Jan. 11 when the rivers crested, changed course and, in some locations, carved fresh channels beyond their banks. Hit hardest was the St. George Utah Green Valley Stake south of St. George. Eighteen of the 20 homes destroyed by the flooding within the Green Valley Stake boundaries were owned by members, said Brother Terry, the Church's regional welfare agent in the flood-impacted area.

More than a dozen other member homes from the Green Valley Stake were severely damaged when shifting flood waters from the Santa Clara River caused sewage back-ups.

The Santa Clara River also claimed four homes in the Santa Clara stake. One home was just three weeks from completion. Two others were owned by the same family.

A house built across the street from the historic Jacob Hamblin Home was among those destroyed. Anticipating the loss, members hustled to pull furnishings and other valuables from the home before it succumbed to the flood. "We got everything out that (the homeowners) directed us to take," President Graf said.

At press time, other homes in Santa Clara were being threatened, including one structure almost as old as the Jacob Hamblin Home, built in 1862. Jacob Hamblin was an early colonizer of the area, sent by Brigham Young to foster peace with the Native Indians.

Four member homes from the Bloomington Utah Stake also suffered significant damage.

Meanwhile, several bridges were washed out in the Gunlock area northwest of Santa Clara. Many from the Ivins Utah Stake were "essentially isolated" because of the damage to the roadways encircling the community, Brother Terry said. Electrical and phone service was not interrupted in Gunlock, although the water system was compromised. Members were forced to boil water in the area and folks with severe health conditions were reportedly evacuated.

The basements of homes of several members living in the Enterprise Utah Stake were flooded, Brother Terry said. Heavy water flows also caused a dyke to split on a creek near Enterprise. The most notable victims in the Enterprise area might be the flooded farm lands that have been, ironically, parched in recent years by drought.

Brother Terry is hopeful that the inundated farm land can still yield a harvest this year. "It's disrupted, but it's early enough in the year that (farmers) can still get at it."

Friends and neighbors have done what they can to assist flood victims and protect threatened structures. Uncounted man-hours were donated by Church members living throughout southern Utah, including full-time missionaries serving in the Utah Provo South Mission. Most filled and laid sandbags. Others opened their homes to those impacted by the disaster.

"Everybody has been willing to jump in and help," Brother Terry said.

On the morning of Jan. 12, after three days and two nights of blasting logjams and dumping truck loads of lava rock along the river bank, Elder Lee Ence, Area Authority Seventy, surveyed the area with a sense of melancholy.

"I grew up here," he said. "Looking from the hill, this was once a pretty, lush area with cottonwood and other trees lining the river banks. Now they are destroyed."

During the peak of the runoff Jan. 11, the river washed the bank away at a rate of a foot per minute. In one day, a river bank that was 1,300 feet from homes was eroded to 300 feet.

Where "once a trickle of water" meandered, he said, are now scars 200 to 300 feet wide carved by a river created from 10-15 inches of rainfall that fell over several days.

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