Searchers look for flood survivors in Utah town

Posted at 12:46 PM, Sep 15, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-15 15:46:56-04

Search-and-rescue teams trudged through muddy streambeds Tuesday in a small polygamous town on the Utah-Arizona border, looking for four people who were missing after a devastating flash flood killed at least nine people.

With more rain in the forecast, men in helmets were perched at high points along the route, watching carefully for any more floodwaters that could suspend the search in Hildale, the secluded community that is the home base of Warren Jeffs' polygamist sect.

The four missing were among 13 children and 3 women in two vehicles that were smashed by a wall of water that carried them several hundred yards downstream Monday. Three people survived.

On Tuesday, the streets were caked in red mud, with mounds of dirt piled up by earth movers clearing the roads. A "road closed" sign was bent and smashed on the ground. As a helicopter buzzed overhead, large crowds of boys in jeans and girls and women in deep-colored prairie dresses watched the rescue effort.

Residents called it the worst flood in memory for the community. The sister towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, are 315 miles south of Salt Lake City and sit at the foot of picturesque red rock cliffs. It was in this area at Maxwell Canyon where heavy rains sent waves of water down Short Creek and barreling through the towns.

"The water torrent was so fast, it was taking concrete pillars and just throwing them down, just moving them like plastic," said Lorin Holm, who called the storm the  heaviest in the 58 years he's lived in the community.

The women and children hit by the flood were in an SUV and a van on a gravel road north of the towns. It appears they were coming back from a park when the flash flood hit, Assistant Fire Chief Kevin Barlow said.

The fast-moving water "obviously caught these people off guard," Barlow said. "Witnesses say they were backing out of it, trying to get away from it and it still swept them in."

About three hours earlier, the National Weather Service had issued a flood warning for the area, saying: "Move to higher ground now. Act quickly to protect your life." It's unknown if the victims were aware of the warning.

The raging torrents of water are not uncommon in an area prone to flash floods, but the volume and pace of Monday's rain was a "100-year event," said Brian McInerney, hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City.

The height of the storm lasted about 30 minutes, pouring 1 1/2 inches of rain into a desert-like landscape with little vegetation and many steep slopes.

Monday's weather event was like a bucket of water being poured onto a rock -- it slid right off and began running downstream, picking up sediment to create the forceful, muddy "chocolate mess" that rushed through the city, McInerney said. Another half an inch of rain came within the hour.

"It just hit the wrong place at the wrong time," he said.

Officials say the bodies of two people were recovered in Arizona, about 2 1/2 miles downstream The bodies of six others were found in Utah.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said Tuesday that state officials were offering resources to help with the search-and-rescue effort. Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox was on his way to the towns to see the damage.

Chris and Lydia Wyler of Hildale said heavy rainfall in the area usually draws spectators who love to splash in it and watch as it surges through creeks.

"People go out on the streets and kids will start playing," said Chris Wyler, 38. "But this storm that hit yesterday, it was just so severe and so sudden."

Wyler's SUV was hemmed in by the floodwaters. She filmed women in braids and long skirts being pulled from a car in the path of a torrent of water.

"It looks like a tsunami went through," said Ross Chatwin, who lives in Colorado City. He and about 500 people joined in the search Monday night.

The search effort temporarily eased the tension between followers of Jeffs and nonmembers who still live there. That split between loyalists who still believe Jeffs is a victim of religious persecution and defectors who are embracing government efforts to pull the town into modern society has sharpened in the four years since Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting underage girls he considered brides.

"We were all coming together for a common cause, without any bad feelings," he said.