Water trickles inauspiciously from a huge 200-foot-wide gap in a dike on the west side of the Quail Creek reservoir, a pale reminder of the 40-foot high wall of water that sent about 1,500 New Year's revelers in St. George fleeing to higher ground shortly after midnight Sunday morning.
Workers and residents turned Monday to cleaning up the silt and debris, trying to bring order back to the flooded areas. No one was injured, but 50 to 60 homes and 100 apartment units in the communities of Washington, Washington Fields, Bloomington and Bloomington Hills along the Virgin River were damaged. At least four bridges were ruined and residents in outlying areas will find themselves taking long detours to get to St. George.Deseret News artist and cartoonist Craig Holyoak, on vacation with his family in Bloomington near St. George over the weekend, drove to the dam Sunday morning. He said it looked as if someone had taken a huge slice out of a birthday cake.
"The sides of the 200-foot-wide section of dam that gave way were almost straight up and down," he said.
Teams of local, state and federal officials began fanning out into the affected areas to assess the damage, put a price tag on the destruction and organize efforts to help local government agencies and affected residents to recoup their losses. That effort will likely take several days.
Washington County Emergency Services Director Tony Hafen said the area has been declared a disaster by local and state officials, and a similar ruling is expected from the federal government once officials complete an inspection tour scheduled for Monday. That ruling will open the door for federal assistance in restoring order and property. The federal government usually reimburses losses at 75 percent of the value. The remainder of the rehabilitation will be financed by the state and local governments.
Disaster assistance has long been available to public agencies and local governments, but private citizens have had to fend for themselves. That changed six weeks ago with the enactment of new federal legislation that makes private citizens eligible for up to $10,000 in grants plus low interest loans to cope with such disasters.
Gov. Norm Bangerter, who toured the area early Sunday, said the $3 million reservoir will be rebuilt even though reconstruction is likely to cost much more than the original structure. He said the reservoir is critical to the water needs of the area and future development. The 50,000 acre foot reservoir was a key element in the area's irrigation and culinary water systems as well as providing recreational facilities for the Quail Creek Reservoir State Park.
Colored water oozing from the toe of the dike was discovered about 10 a.m. Saturday, and crews from the Washington County Water Conservancy District were summoned to the site, about six miles west of Hurricane and about 12 miles up the Virgin River from St. George.
Work crews battled for 14 hours Saturday to seal a leak in the earthen dike that was built along the west side of the reservoir to help increase storage capacity. Efforts were made to pump concrete grouting into the toe of the dike through a pipe that had been used to grout other leaks over the past two years. The dam has been plagued with leakage almost from the time it opened in 1985.
Despite the crew's best efforts, the situation got worse. About 7 p.m., Hafen was told of the problem and went to the site.
"About 8 p.m., we decided to notify authorities down river that there was a problem and went over the areas that might have to be evacuated," Hafen said. Some of the residents nearer the dam were warned and advised to leave.
By 10 p.m., it was apparent that efforts to stop the seepage were not working, and the dike was in imminent danger of failing.
"We thought there would be more time, we didn't expect it to go so fast," Hafen said.
When the dike burst at 12:08 a.m., authorities were notified and police spread into residential areas bordering the river and ordered residents to evacuate. Despite confusion among some of the residents, many who thought warning sirens were part of the ringing in of the New Year and others who thought the pounding on their doors were just over-exuberant partiers, the evacuation worked well and ran smoothly.
"Most people in our area were at parties, and you couldn't really hear the sirens over the music," said Brent Miner, a Bloomington resident. "Phones began to ring and the word spread from house to house and everyone just sort of fell into order. There was no panic at all."
Bloomington was the hardest hit by the floodwaters with 30 to 40 homes damaged when the water gushing down the Virgin River jumped its banks and followed the flood plain right into the heart of a subdivision. Many of those whose homes were flooded had to wait several hours to get back into the area to assess damage and begin cleanup efforts. They were stranded on the other side of the river when they crossed a bridge while heading for higher ground. The bridge was closed for several hours while authorities tried to determine its soundness after the wall of water smashed into the pilings and flowed over the top of the roadway.
Another 100 units of the Riverside Apartments in St. George were damaged with almost all the lower floor apartments inundated by the raging torrent. On Sunday afternoon, the area was awash in slimy silt carried into the apartments by the water. In some apartments, the water level marks on walls reached as high as five feet. A nearby storage business was similarly damaged. Like the apartment residents, storage shed renters returned to find their belongings soaked by the water and covered in a slippery coating of silt. There was little to salvage, and most of the trucks pulling away were filled with debris that appeared headed for the landfill.
Shortly after the water subsided, the complaints began. Many residents were upset that authorities may have overstated the urgency of the evacuation, causing residents to leave behind many items and keepsakes that could have been saved. The order to evacuate came shortly after midnight, but the wall of water did not reach the damaged homes until nearly 3:30 a.m.
"We could have gotten a lot of stuff out if we had been given a more realistic time," said Myron Nelson, a Riverside Apartment resident. "We got the TV and the sewing machine out but there was a lot more we probably could have taken with us had we known."
The evacuation was quick and thorough, factors authorities said prevented injury or loss of life to area residents. Unfortunately the same could not be said for cattle and other livestock. The wall of water tore into a smaller irrigation reservoir in the Washington Fields area, obliterating that dam and allowing water to sweep into fields where grazing cattle were caught in the torrent. In addition to cattle, pigs, sheep and horses were also reported missing in the aftermath. Outbuildings and farm vehicles were damaged, and there was a report that a semi-trailer truck was washed away from one ranch site.
Though the raging waters washed away property, hopes and dreams, it couldn't take away dignity and character. Many victims managed to keep their sense of humor intact. One man carrying a plunger from an apartment quipped, "If they'd have used this, none of this would have happened."