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Devastation stuns Dixie

‘100-year flood’ destroys homes, bridges, parks and golf courses

SHARE Devastation stuns Dixie

ST. GEORGE — Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. toured flood-ravaged Washington County on Tuesday and issued an executive order declaring the area in a state of emergency.

"Flying over (the flooded region) was breathtaking. I didn't expect to see damage to this extent. It's unprecedented," Huntsman said during an afternoon news conference at the Washington County Commission chambers. "You've got to see it firsthand to believe it."

The governor's decision dovetails with a similar announcement issued by Washington County officials Monday. The executive order activates the Utah National Guard and other state resources to help deal with the devastation.

Both the Santa Clara and Virgin rivers were swollen beyond recognition, fueled by unrelenting rainfall and a rapidly melting snowpack in the surrounding mountains. Construction crews worked nonstop trying to build berms and clear mounds of debris that were piling up around bridges and diverting water toward a long stretch of houses.

The Santa Clara River gobbled up at least 14 homes in the St. George area, said the city's assistant manager, Marc Mortensen. The river also destroyed several homes in Santa Clara, including a new house whose owners were three weeks away from moving in.

"We were able to evacuate everyone, but some owners weren't home, so we tried to save what we could for them after making a forced entry," Mortensen said. "Three homes in a cul-de-sac fell into the river, one right after the other. It was really sad."

Damage to St. George property and buildings was placed at $15 million, he said, although that did not include other unknown damage.

Residents of the hardest-hit areas also were without power, sewer and water services for the time being, and everyone in the city was being asked to conserve water, Mortensen said.

"All that water goes down the drain, and we've had some sewers backing up. We don't want that," he said. "We are also operating on a shoestring right now since we don't know the condition of our wells in the Gunlock area, and Quail Creek is off line."

Several bridges in St. George were either destroyed or structurally compromised by the floodwaters that were clogged with chunks of huge trees and jagged pieces of houses.

Access to Gunlock on U-18 was completely cut off, prompting emergency workers to ask a private helicopter pilot for help. Pilot Jeremy Johnson helped evacuate people and transported crews and emergency equipment in and out of waterlogged sections of the county.

By late evening, officials were trying to blast an old concrete barrier out of the Santa Clara River with ammonium nitrate in an attempt to open another channel away from threatened homes.

The front nine holes on the Southgate golf course in St. George were destroyed, while the first three holes on the Sunbrook golf course were damaged, Mortensen said. Five city parks are gone, as are miles and miles of walking trails and bridges.

Hundreds of people turned out to help fill sandbags to place around houses in Bloomington, Green Valley and Santa Clara. Traffic in and out of the two cities is restricted in numerous places, and many homes received flood damage.

Jill Ence, whose home is in Santa Clara, said she was hoping and praying the river wouldn't turn her way.

"We've lived here 13 years and never worried about water," Ence said. "The river was completely dry for years. It's never been like this."

The normally sedate Virgin and Santa Clara rivers were clocked at 20,000 and 6,500 cubic feet per second, respectively, producing what officials are calling a 100-year flood.

Deseret Morning News graphicDNews graphicUtah weatherRequires Adobe Acrobat.

The Washington County School District also canceled school for today, telling teachers and students to take advantage of the time to help others clean up from the flood.

E-mail: nperkins@desnews.com