UT faces flood threat

Snow melt in Utah is bringing a threat of new flooding that could burden people recovering from January flood damage, said the state’s hydrologist.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | April 18, 2005

Not much remains of homes in Gallatin after a powerful tornado. (DNN photo by Heather Moyer)
Credit: Disaster News Network

Snow melt in Utah is bringing a threat of new flooding that could burden people recovering from January flood damage, said the state’s hydrologist.

The snow pack this spring is much larger than in the past, explained Brian McInerney, a National Weather Service hydrologist for Utah, and the melting will cause creeks and rivers to rise. “The snow pack is 262 percent above normal,” he said.

But McInerney said national headlines calling the flooding “massive" and "spectacular” might be sensationalizing the real threat.

Because a spring flood event isn’t likely to be reminiscent of the cascade of water that destroyed homes in southern Utah in January, when the Santa Clara River burst its banks, he said.

“Ten to 12 inches of rain fell in a 48-hour period in January’s flooding,” said McInerney. “That event was from the sky. Channels and existing structures couldn’t handle the water. You had houses falling into streams.

“Will we repeat that? Highly improbable,” he said, and that’s because snow melt releases water more slowly than a deluge of rain. “Snow melt typically happens at an inch to an inch-and-a-half per day,” he said. “On a hotter day, two to three inches might melt.”

The problem will arise, he said, if the snow melt is coupled with a rain event - and at least some communities - St. George, for example - are the same areas hit by January flooding.

Where’s the highest flood potential? It’s in areas along Coal Creek, said McInerney, where some flooding is almost inevitable. Runoff will begin picking up in a day or two as temperatures get warmer. “It’s going to be difficult to get out of a flood scenario for Coal Creek. And there are still some temporary structures in that area because of the January flooding. That could be problematic.”

Problematic - but not massive, he said. “I would say calling it massive is a bit sensationalist. I mean, we hope it will melt in a nice orderly fashion.”

Local churches were already organizing volunteers willing to sandbag. “It has been a very heavy snowfall,” said the Rev. John Jaster of Lutheran Trinity Church in Cedar City, Utah. “We are concerned - but we’re also very prepared.”

Washington County communities - St. George, Santa Clara, Gunlock - were hard hit by January flooding. An interfaith recovery group was organized to help flood-stricken residents cope with damage to their homes and lingering trauma. At least 27 homes were destroyed in St. George alone, and dozens of others were destroyed or severely damaged throughout the county.

Heavy snow pack followed by rain in the upper elevations sent water plummeting down the mountainsides and into the Santa Clara and Virgin rivers. In the region where the two rivers converge, water hit with tremendous force.

The new long-term recovery committee - the Dixie Disaster Recovery Coalition - comprises more than 15 faith-based and community groups. Its mission is to help flood-affected people make a plan for their recovery, identify and help resolve emergency and long-term disaster-related needs, and strengthen area-wide coordination in disasters and emergencies.

The Dixie coalition is coordinating its work with groups such as the Virgin River/Santa Clara River Flood Relief Inc., the Department of Workforce Services, and others.

Western U.S. weather this winter was noted as unusual by forecasters. This winter was the wettest in a century for both Arizona and New Mexico, while Pacific Northwest remains in a drought. Flood threats in Arizona and New Mexico diminished because runoff happened gradually.

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