At least 15 killed, including children and canyon explorers, in southern Utah floods

from latimes.com – Los Angeles Times http://ift.tt/1ifknq4

Before they turned deadly, the storms were a wonder.

Waterfalls spouted from the sides of the mountains. The rain came down so hard that some residents in the sister cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. — most famously known as the home of a fundamentalist Mormon sect — had trouble seeing their backyards. 

"It’s crazy!" Lydia Wyler, 38, said as she shot video of the wind and rain thrashing the trees outside her Hildale house, laughing a little as her kids gaped in amazement.

The joy didn’t last. At least 15 people — including at least 9 children — were killed in flash floods that suddenly struck southern Utah on Monday.

In Zion National Park, at least three visitors were killed while exploring the Keyhole Canyon when more than half an inch of rain fell in less than an hour, park spokeswoman Aly Baltrus said Tuesday.

“It would have flashed [flooded] right after a rainstorm,” said Baltrus, who added that the group had a canyoneering permit for the area.

Four others who were exploring the canyon were missing Tuesday, and Baltrus said rescuers wouldn’t be able to go into the small canyon until conditions improved.

Tragedy also struck Hildale and Colorado City, the border cities together known as Short Creek.

Officials say that as two families were returning Tuesday from a visit to a nearby park, the group of three adults and 13 children stopped to watch the floodwaters that had blocked their path back to town. A wall of water suddenly came from behind and swept their vehicles away, killing at least 12 members of the group.

Three children survived, including one who was hospitalized overnight. The victims have not been identified. It is not clear whether the missing person is an adult or child. The youngest child in the group was 4 and the oldest a teenager. 

"We’re just greatly humbled by this, but we realize this is an act of God, and this is something we can’t control," said Hildale Mayor Philip Barlow. "We have to take what we receive and do the best we can."

But after describing the thousands of phone calls the community has received and the arrival of more search dogs to look for the missing, Barlow fell silent a few moments.

"Just never experienced this before," Barlow said softly.

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The disaster stunned a secluded community whose Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints members can be unwelcoming to nonmembers and who are still adjusting after the 2006 arrest and ensuing conviction of their spiritual leader, Warren Jeffs, who promoted polygamy and punished disobedient members.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who was on a trade mission in China, said in a statement Tuesday he was "heartbroken" by the deaths and offered state resources to help rescuers pick through the tons of debris that have clogged Short Creek and which may contain more bodies or survivors.

“This is one of the worst weather-related disasters in the history of the state of Utah,” Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer J. Cox said at Tuesday’s news conference, announcing that the governor had activated the state National Guard to help with the search and recovery efforts.

"Our hearts and prayers go out to the families of those who have lost loved ones at this time," Cox said. "We’re here to serve you. I hope this will bring the state and these communities closer together."

The search-and-rescue effort beginning Monday evening drew hundreds of residents. 

Unusually, FLDS and non-FLDS members were working together in the darkness, said Christopher Wyler, 38, who told the Los Angeles Times that he was shunned when he and his wife left the sect four years ago.

"It’s something you don’t see very often," Wyler said of the cooperation. "It’s interesting how tragedies like this will pull us together."

The flash flood happened when a storm unleashed one to two inches of rain in the area in less than an hour, said Michael Conger, the lead forecaster for the National Weather Service’s Salt Lake City office. "The rainfall was very intense," Conger said.

The storm seemed to directly hit a drainage area upstream from the border communities, Conger said.

The raging waters ripped trees from their banks and the creek bulged. In Facebook videos uploaded from the scene, many of the female onlookers gawking at the waters can be seen wearing the long, conservative Prairie-style dresses and braided hairstyles of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

A river of mud and busted tree branches swept under bridges and onto the streets of the community, sometimes carrying cars, water jugs and coolers with it.

In one video, Lydia Wyler spotted emergency officials pulling women and children wearing FLDS-style clothing and hairstyles from their car, which was being tugged away by muddy floodwaters racing through an intersection. 

"They’re getting everybody out, because the car’s about to — trying to wash away," Wyler said as rescuers almost knee-deep in racing waters pulled the passengers out through their windows. Wyler told The Times that officials managed to rescue the car too.

Responding to a late-night call for volunteers, her husband joined hundreds of others trying to pick through the slurry in search of the missing passengers. Chain saws roared in the dark as Christopher Wyler dug through a mud bank.

At one point, officials ordered everyone to higher ground, and Wyler realized his feet were stuck in ankle-deep mud, and he had to struggle to free himself. Officials soon canceled search efforts for the night out of safety concerns and resumed work at 7 a.m.

In 21 years of living in the community, Wyler said, "This is definitely the worst [flood] we’ve seen." But he appreciated the beauty of seeing FLDS and non-FLDS members working together.

Another Hildale resident who helped out on search-and-rescue shared the same view about the temporary bridge in the community’s divide in a public post on Facebook.

"in A Small town when tragedy strikes we are all family, there are no more labels, no flds, no gentiles, no apostates…. Just Humans. Humans helping humans," the resident wrote. "I don’t mean to diminish 9/11, but this was Short Creeks 9/14 in that it brought us together, we were all the same, seeking the same goals once again."

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