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Ducey: Building bridge where kids died a priority

Posted: 4:23 PM, Dec 03, 2019
Updated: 2019-12-04 07:46:13-05
Military-style truck recovered from Tonto Basin
Tonto Basin flooding - search for Willa Rawlings
Tonto Basin flooding - search for Willa Rawlings
Tonto Basin flooding - search for Willa Rawlings

PHOENIX — Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said Tuesday he will consider providing money in next year's state budget to help build a bridge over a rural creek where a family was swept away last week.

Two children were found dead after Friday's incident on Tonto Creek and a search is ongoing for a missing 6-year-old girl.

Gila County has applied repeatedly for federal funds to pay for a bridge over the crossing where the family truck was swept away while trying to traverse the swollen creek, but hasn't won a grant for the project, according to county spokeswoman Jacque Sanders. About 1,000 people are cut off when the creek floods during heavy rains.

The governor told reporters that with the state in a good financial position, looking at ways to fund a $20 million bridge to serve the small community is in the mix. The county has sought $17 million in federal funds and would pay for the remainder.

"First I want to say that my heart goes out to the family. I was briefed by the Sheriff yesterday on the situation. We’re going to look at infrastructure needs. The first thing I want to say is when we do have inclement weather, if people will heed the warnings from there authorities, we’ll have a much better situation. And we are going to look at the infrastructure needs of the state. I’ve heard the asks on this. It is certainly going to be considered in this budget season," said Ducey Tuesday morning.

"You only cross out of necessity, it’s not something you do for fun," said Lucy Heisler, who has lived on the east side of the creek in Tonto Basin for seven years.

Many of roughly 900 people on the east side, like Lucy, caravan through the unpredictable creek when it floods. "You pray that you don’t hit anything as you’re going through there and that the water is like you think it is," said Heisler.

Tuesday night neighbors made the treacherous trek for the county supervisor‘s monthly meeting.

"Rural Arizona needs funding, and we do not want these deaths to fall of deaf ears," said Tim Humphrey, County Supervisor for District 2.

"This isn’t the first death nor will it be the last if we don’t get a bridge," said Heisler.

The community has expressed the need for a bridge for at least two decades and had concrete plans since 2012. Despite multiple requests for grant money, federal funding for the roughly 20 million dollar project has never been approved.

"Twenty million is a lot of money. But it’s also not a lot of money what we’re talking about," said Heisler

In addition to Governor Ducey, other state leaders are promising a change. "We have a surplus this year and I’m going to fight to get the funding," State Senator Sylvia Allen told the packed room Tuesday night.

For years Tonto Basin has tried to explain to different appropriation committees why a town of 2,000 deserves the millions for a bridge. Now their message is more simple.

"Have you been out there? Have you walked that creek to look for that little girl? When you do, you’ll know how much it’s needed," said Heisler.

Daniel and Lacey Rawlings' 5-year-old son and 5-year-old niece were found Saturday, a day after a nine-member family group tried to a cross a creek in a military-style truck.

The couple didn't want to discuss what happened Friday or why they tried the cross the creek with their four children and three nieces. "I will say one thing," Daniel Rawlings said. "People go around the barricades all the time. I'm not justifying my actions one bit."

The crossing had been closed with barricades and signs because of a storm that dropped an estimated 2 inches of rain in the Tonto Basin area.

The county's federal grant application says five people had died crossing the creek in the past 25 years. That was before last Friday's tragedy.

You can learn more about the bridge project and the community's call for funding here.