SANTA CLARA, Washington County — With cloth towels and rolls of paper towels as their tools, friends and family of Pam Graf sat on her living room floor Wednesday surrounded by thousands of handwritten papers and notes spread over every available inch of the floor.
Genealogy sheets, Boy Scout memorabilia and letters that Graf's son had hand-written to her while he was serving an LDS mission littered the floor. All of the irreplaceable treasures were in Graf's basement Tuesday when a wall of mud and water broke through the window well and gutted the room.
Wednesday, friends and family members started the tedious process of going through every single sheet of paper — peeling the soaked pages off each other and hand drying them individually with paper towels.
Several empty towel rolls sat nearby.
Down the street from Graf, two women in a front yard sat in lawn chairs next to buckets of water and hand-washed hundreds of photographs one by one, then hung them on a clothesline to dry.
Similar scenes of kindness, neighbors helping neighbors and strangers helping complete strangers, played out throughout the southern Utah town of Santa Clara, a day after a breach in a dike that held water in Laub Pond sent a destructive flow of mud and water through the neighborhoods below.
More than 800 volunteers officially signed up Wednesday to help residents of Santa Clara dig out from the muddy mess, and many others jumped in to assist without checking in. Many were caked in red mud from head to toe while helping people they didn't even know.
About half of the volunteers who signed up were high school and junior high students who were allowed to leave school Wednesday to help with the cleanup efforts. Many worked with big muddy hand prints on their clothes, placed by friends as a sort of badge of honor.
"This is what I need to do," said 16-year-old Kaden Hardy, who was excused early from Snow Canyon High School. "I like to help with whatever I can. I feel it's important to serve others."
Graf said a woman from the neighboring town of Ivins was at Graf's house all night Tuesday helping.
"I went up to her and I said, 'I don't even know your name.' And she told me her name, and we just hugged and cried and I said, 'This is what it's all about.'"
On Tuesday, the earthen retention dike holding back Laub Pond was breached following a week of heavy rains. Santa Clara Mayor Rick Rosenberg said 31 homes suffered some type of damage along with about a dozen businesses. Basements were flooded with mud and water in the majority of those homes. Some suffered serious structural damage and may have to be condemned and knocked down, he said.
The story on Wednesday, however, was the volunteers. In a state already renowned for voluntarism, residents said Utah shined once again as friends and strangers jumped in to offer help in a time of need.
Lisa Frei said she wasn't surprised:
"I know this town. I know southern Utah in general," she said. "You're not alone in it, that's for sure."
Frei's business, Cravings Bakery, was one of the businesses hardest hit. The broken dike, which can be seen from the bakery's back door, sent a wall of mud in her store's direction.
"It broke the back doors out, filled up the store and then broke the front doors out," she said.
Her family has had the store, formerly known as Dutchman's Market, for 26 years, and had just remodeled the interior less than a year ago. Wednesday, hundreds of volunteers were pulling damaged equipment out of the building and throwing away contaminated food. Even the owner of the market across the street from her, whose business also suffered damage, drove a Bobcat to her parking lot to help scoop mud.
"We're just going to start over, take the walls down," she said while gazing at her muddy business.
The door to the walk-in freezer was swept a quarter-mile away, into the yard of Lisa Gunkley. Wednesday, volunteers were at Gunkley's door before she even got out of bed.
"Some's guy is here on his backhoe I don't even know," she said. "They're just coming from all over the place to help. … It's just amazing how many people are helping. Kind of overwhelming, but this makes it a lot more manageable."
On Tuesday night, Gunkley said she finally had to send volunteers away because she needed to go to sleep, even though they wanted to keep working.
Back to work
The next morning, the volunteers were back and helped haul buckets and buckets of mud out of her basement. Her basement was gutted and she said she lost family videos and a quilt she was stitching.
As the freezer door from Cravings Bakery was found and removed, the owner of Goodyear Dixieland Tire across the street said he didn't know what happened to the Coke machine that had been sitting in front of his store. It was nowhere to be found Wednesday afternoon.
But that machine was the least of Brian Johnson's worries. Mud broke through the windows of his bay doors and filled the garage of his tire repair shop. Johnson said his garage was filled with 2½ feet of mud and water from front to back. He was still estimating the damage Wednesday, trying to figure out how much of his equipment will be salvageable.
"We have no idea yet. We have to get it cleaned up, dried off, but we're not hopeful," he said.
The back room, where all of his tires were stored, suffered the heaviest damage.
"When you get tires slamming around, it does some damage. It's just an unbelievable mess back there," he said. "It's an unbelievable disaster back there."
The mud continued to flow to homes behind Johnson's store, knocking over a cinder block wall in the parking lot and continuing down Arrowhead Lane where Willene and Rex Bivens' basement took a direct hit.
"The whole basement is destroyed. It has to be gutted," the elderly Willene Bivens said as she sorted through her goopy possessions piled in her front yard to see what was salvageable. "It filled clear up to about four inches from the ceiling and broke out the windows, picked up the furniture and destroyed it."
Rex Bivens and his son typically sleep in the basement.
"If it had happened at night, we'd have had two people killed. It happened during the day and that was the blessing. There's always a blessing in every tragedy, and that was it. And we still have the upstairs in which to live," his wife said.
A knock at the door
As was the case with many other residents, the Bivenses said volunteers started showing up before any of the hired disaster cleanup workers arrived.
"We just had people knock on our door and volunteers started showing up early this morning. I don't know what we'd do without them," she said.
One of those volunteers was Ivins resident Kathee Hunt. She had never met the Bivenses, but she showed up Wednesday morning at Santa Clara City Hall to be assigned to help wherever she could.
"It's sad all the stuff that's happened to these people, and they have no insurance. So I'm just trying to help them clean it up," she said, caked in red mud from head to toe while hauling mud from the basement.
"I just can't believe the damage. There's not even a basement down there. It's mud, everywhere. It doesn't even look like a house."
Jerri Jorgensen and her friends traveled from the Little Valley neighborhood in St. George to help after the LDS Little Valley Stake sent out an email to all of its members.
"Got an email from the bishop, said go do what you can, so here we are," she said. "My heart just breaks. It's amazing what that water can do. I'm just happy to be here. I hope they would do the same for me if I was in the same situation."
Robert Lybert, from Alberta, Canada, was on vacation visiting his uncle in St. George when they heard what was happening.
"My uncle said, ''You wanna go?' and I said, 'Sure,'" said Lybert, who was caked in dried mud and trying to stay cool under southern Utah's warm sunshine. "Cause if I had this happen to me, I'd hope someone would show up, so I figured I'd show up."
Susan Broberg, a single mother of two children, said her basement was gutted. Without the help from the community, she said she doesn't know what she would have done.
"I tell ya, I've been amazed. Last night, I was just in that shocked state and I don't even know what to do. And there are people here and they just started working, and it was incredible. And today, people have been here willing to do anything. That's been amazing. I couldn't have don't anything (without them)," she said.
"I don't know why they came, they just came."
A gift of food
Local businesses donated pizza, food, water, Gatorade and other items to homeowners and volunteers. The Washington County Sheriff's Office drove around with a pickup truck of supplies to every house in the affected neighborhoods to make sure they had what they needed. Several residents said employees from Home Depot were sent into the neighborhoods at 7 a.m. to help shovel mud.
Within the first 24 hours of the disaster, Rosenberg estimated that 2,000 different people had volunteered to help, with 600 working at any given time.
Late Wednesday afternoon, dozens of Desert Hills High School students were bused to the neighborhood to offer their help. The students were members of the school's football team and the girls soccer team.
Many of the damaged homes did not have flood insurance, the mayor said. But he noted it wouldn't have mattered in most cases because the floods were in the basements. He said the city plans to initiate a private relief effort to raise funds for restoration and recovery, as it did following the floods in 2005.
Some affected homeowners were expected to be back to almost normal by the end of the week.
"In a couple of days they'll be pretty well back where they can start looking back in," Rosenberg said. "For several of ’em, it'll be weeks. And there are several (homes) that will need to be condemned and torn down."2 comments on this story
A damage total was still being calculated Wednesday. Rosenberg said the important thing is there were no reported injuries.
As for rebidding the dike, "The city is going to have to, in my opinion. This is a retention basin that has been there since 1919, and so the town has kind of developed and grown around and below the retention basin," the mayor said.
Within the past six months, Washington County established a Flood Control Authority, he said. The group had identified 10 projects countywide to work on, with Laub Pond being one of them. The problem was figuring out how to upgrade the system and how to pay for it — something Rosenberg said would be looked at again once the mud is cleaned up.