Flood in the driest state
August 26, 2008
Last week heavy monsoon moisture pounded parts of Arizona near the Grand Canyon. The rapid water runoff breached an earthen dam and released a rampaging flood into a canyon occupied by about 400 Havasupai Indians. Although the Indian village was not damaged, rescue helicopters plucked scores of residents and campers from the popular gorge and no fatalities were reported. Most of the damaging floods that cause havoc in Nevada and the eastern Sierra are spawned by a rapidly melting snowpack. Although it is the driest of the 50 states, floods have ravaged every part of the Silver State in nearly every month of the year. These desert rampages are caused by torrential rain, melting snow or isolated thunderstorms that can create flash floods. As we learned from Hurricane Katrina in the summer of 2005, nothing can match a flood in power and destruction. Flash floods, the bane of campers and hikers in the Desert Southwest, can strike with no warning. On Sept. 14, 1974, an intense thunderstorm sent a raging wall of water 40 feet high through the Eldorado Canyon Resort killing nine people. The flood wiped out the Nelson landing marina, a popular weekend fishing resort on Lake Mohave, about 35 miles southeast of Las Vegas.Park officials had warned of flash flood dangers at the resort the previous summer. Glen Bean, superintendent of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, which manages the landing, wanted to limit access to the resort as part of a general phase-out of the facility. But Jim Wiggins, one of the owners of the concession protested, It isnt right when bureaucracy can ramrod a small businessman and force him to quit. Wiggins had a lot of support among the business community. Many Nevada politicians also opposed the closing. Congressman David Towell said, The closing does not seem to a very sound decision at time when more and more people are using the river for recreation. The Park Service should be expanding its services rather than closing existing facilities. Facing so much high-powered resistance, Superintendent Bean was forced to back down from his decision.Normally a dry tributary to the Colorado River, the canyon turned deadly just one year after the closure conflict. The weather forecast for Sept. 14 called for widely scattered thundershowers across Nevadas southland, but the fish were biting and business was good at the general store and restaurant. In the mountains up-canyon, however, an intense hail and rainstorm was in the process of dumping three inches of rain in just 30 minutes.The National Weather Service detected the large thunderstorm by radar and issued a flash flood alert for the Eldorado area at 3 p.m. Tragically, floodwaters struck the resort 30 minutes before the warning was received. Ironically, not one weather station in Nevada recorded any precipitation that day. Flash floods strike with little or no warning. At Nelson Landing, the muddy torrent crushed the restaurant, grocery store, and bar in about five seconds before racing on another 500 feet.One eyewitness said the people inside the restaurant just vanished. Thirty-eight cars and trucks, 19 boat trailers, 23 boats and half of the boat docking facilities were swept into the lake. A boat maintenance building, as well as 10 cabins and five mobile homes were also washed away. Manuel Cortex, administrator of the Clark County Taxi Authority, was at the resort with his friend Frank Olson when the flood hit. Ive lived in the desert all of my life and Ive never seen anything as awesome it was like a big black wall of something. His buddy Frank was last seen on the boat landing when the black wall hit. Bernie Daniels, a tourist from Glendale, Calif., remembered, Heavy hail fell for 15 minutes. Then there was a solid gush. It had to be 30 or 40 feet high. Daniels had just hustled his wife and dog to high ground when he saw two women hanging onto a building while the water swirled around them. The quick-thinking Daniels grabbed a garden hose, tossed it down to the terrorized women and pulled the pair to safety. After the 1974 Eldorado flood, bulldozers leveled the damaged structures and remaining debris. In a belated acknowledgment of the high flood risk at the site, the concessions and boating facilities were never rebuilt. Historically, the Las Vegas area is prone to flash floods from thunderstorms. Several dry washes pass through the city, which keep the city vulnerable to sudden flooding. After a flash flood caused $3 million worth of damage in June 1955, Nevada Senator Alan Bible ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to find a solution. Sen. Bible said, Since this was the worst flood disaster in Las Vegas in more than 30 years, then proper study must be given to prevent any future recurrence.A few years later the engineers declared A serious flood problem exists along Las Vegas Wash and its tributaries, but voters turned down a proposed flood control plan in 1962 and developers continued to build in flood zones.One year after the Eldorado Canyon tragedy, an intense thunderstorm struck the Las Vegas area on July 3, 1975. Less than a quarter inch of rain dampened the Las Vegas airport, but heavy precipitation in the surrounding mountains quickly found its way into the washes draining toward the city. This flood was worse than the 1955 event two men were killed and the Strip was totally inundated. More than $4.5 million in damage was reported, most of it to homes and automobiles. Two men lost their lives, but it was a miracle more people were not hurt or killed. Ed Suciu, a pit boss at the Marina Hotel, said, The whole town is booked solid and everything is shaping into a big weekend. Right now you cant get a room in town. At the Caesars Palace parking lot about 400 automobiles were damaged or destroyed. Delbert Ball, a visitor from Fort Worth, Texas, said, I went to my room at 5 p.m. and when I came out at 5:30 p.m., cars were under water. I just figured thats one of the hazards of coming to Las Vegas. After viewing the damage, singer Andy Williams, whose Thursday night show was cancelled because patrons could not get through the mud and debris after the water receded, said, I was stunned. It was unbelievable. At one point, all exits from Interstate 15 into Las Vegas were under water, and at least 20 major streets and intersections were closed by deep floodwaters. The flash flood did not dampen the July 4th weekend holiday spirits. The casinos were packed with gamblers and one manager said, We will have floating crap games before we interrupt the luck of the gamblers. The California Highway Patrol at Barstow, Calif., were advising motorists to avoid the Las Vegas area due to the possibility of more flooding, but their warnings fell on mostly deaf ears. I thought people were exaggerating when they said all those cars were flooded, said Evelyn Kozma. I was amazed, I just couldnt believe it. But the flood wouldnt keep us away, we love Las Vegas. One for the record books: Nevadas most intense recorded rainfall occurred on May 29, 1896 at Cloverdale Ranch, about halfway between Gabbs and Tonopah. Observer F. G. Troy reported 8.50 in one hour, with 6.50 in 30 minutes. He also reported that large hailstones stripped many trees of their leaves and that the first half-hour was a regular waterspout with much flooding. The Cloverdale Ranch still exists but it is now abandoned. Just as Las Vegans must contend with flash floods periodically, Reno residents watch the Truckee River carefully in winter and spring. The 1997 New Years flood, which caused $650 million damage in Western Nevada and inundated Renos downtown district for days, was yet another reminder of how quickly disaster can strike. Eight years later, the relatively mild New Years flood of 2006 caused another $18 million in damage along the Truckee River. Whenever the Truckee threatens to spill over its banks, Reno citizens of a certain age may recall the weather bureau notice before the 1955 flood that no menacing storms appear on the weather maps and a series of storms appear unlikely. Even in a desert state, its best to be ready for the next flood.
Mark McLaughlin’s column, “Weather Window,” appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. He is a nationally published writer and photographer whose award-winning books, “The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm,” “Sierra Stories: True Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 andamp; 2,” and “Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad andamp; the Ugly” are available at local stores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org