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Searchers look for flood victims in polygamous Utah town

/ 08:56 AM September 16, 2015
Fatal Flash Floods utah polygamist sect rescue

People look on as crews clear mud and debris from a road following a flash flood Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015, in Colorado City, Arizona. Officials say the bodies of two people killed in flash flooding in southern Utah were recovered in Arizona about two and a half miles downstream, while the bodies of six others were recovered in Utah. AP

HILDALE, Utah — Search-and-rescue teams trudged through muddy streambeds Tuesday in a small polygamous town on the Utah-Arizona border, looking for people who were missing after a devastating flash flood that killed at least 12 people.

With more rain in the forecast, men in helmets were perched at high points along the route, watching carefully for any more floodwaters that could suspend the search in Hildale, the secluded community that is the home base of Warren Jeffs’ polygamist sect.

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Only one person was still missing Tuesday afternoon out of 16 people — three women and 13 children — who were in two vehicles that got smashed Monday by a wall of water and carried several hundred yards downstream. Authorities had not identified the dead. Three people survived, all of them children.

Also Tuesday, officials at Zion National Park in southern Utah said three people died and four others were missing after heavy rain sent flash floods coursing through a narrow slot canyon.

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Three bodies were found a day after the group of four men and three women set out Monday to hike down the canyon, park spokeswoman Holly Baker said. They went canyoneering before park officials closed slot canyons that evening due to flood warnings. Rescuers were waiting for water levels to drop before entering the canyon to search for the missing.

Along the Utah-Arizona border Tuesday, the streets of the sister towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, were caked in red mud, and earth movers cleared the roads and piled up mounds of dirt. As a helicopter buzzed overhead, crowds of boys in jeans and girls and women in deep-colored prairie dresses watched the rescue effort.

Residents called it the worst flood in memory for the community, which is south of Salt Lake City at the foot of picturesque red rock cliffs. It was in this area at Maxwell Canyon where heavy rains sent water down Short Creek and barreling through the towns.

The torrent was so fast, “it was taking concrete pillars and just throwing them down, just moving them like plastic,” said Lorin Holm, who called the storm the heaviest in the 58 years he’s lived in the community.

The women and children were in an SUV and a van on a gravel road north of the towns. They were returning from a park when they stopped at a flooded crossing and got out to watch the raging waters, Hildale Mayor Philip Barlow said.

What they did not know was that a flash flood was brewing in the canyon above, he said. It came rushing down and engulfed their vehicles.

“We’re greatly humbled by this, but we realize that this is an act of God, and this is something we can’t control,” said Barlow, a Jeffs follower. “We have to take what we receive and do the best we can.”

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About three hours earlier, the National Weather Service had issued a flood warning for the area, saying: “Move to higher ground now. Act quickly to protect your life.” It’s unknown if the victims were aware of the warning.

The raging torrents are not uncommon in an area prone to flash floods, but the volume and pace of Monday’s rain was a “100-year event,” said Brian McInerney, hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City.

The height of the storm lasted about 30 minutes, pouring 1.5 inches (3.8 centimeters) of rain into a desert-like landscape with little vegetation and many steep slopes.

Monday’s weather event was like a bucket of water being poured onto a rock — it slid right off and began running downstream, picking up sediment to create the forceful, muddy “chocolate mess” that rushed through the city, McInerney said.

Officials say the bodies of two people were recovered in Arizona. The bodies of six others were found in Utah.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said Tuesday that state officials were offering resources to help with the search-and-rescue effort. Herbert is away on a trade mission in China, but he sent Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox to the town.

Cox called it one of the worst-weather related tragedies in state history and said the Utah National Guard will send troops.

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TAGS: flash flood, Hildale, Killing, polygamist sect, polygamous, rescue, Search, Utah, victims, Warren Jeffs, Zion National Park
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