Dike Collapses in Utah; 1,500 Forced to Flee

From Times Wire Services

An earthen dike gave way early Sunday, sending a 12-foot wall of water down the Virgin River and forcing the overnight evacuation of 1,500 residents and closure of a major interstate highway, authorities said.

Gov. Norman H. Bangerter, who flew to the scene 300 miles south of Salt Lake City, declared the region a disaster area, an action that will help facilitate federal aid for the southwestern Utah communities.

“Will we rebuild? The answer is ‘yes’ to that, an unequivocal yes,” the governor said.

The dike, which helped contain the Quail Creek Reservoir, was built in 1983 at a cost of $3 million.


Low-Lying Areas Awash

When the 50-foot-high dike gave way, it left low-lying areas--primarily the Washington Field section of the St. George suburb of Washington City--awash.

“If you had had a surfboard, you could have just rode the wave. It was that forceful,” said Mike Brunn, a member of the Washington County Search and Rescue Team.

Washington County officials said 50 to 60 homes and 100 apartments were flooded. Numerous cars, trucks and trailers in low-lying areas also were covered by the overflowing river, and some vehicles and livestock were swept away.

“We’ve lost quite a bit of farmland, quite a bit of livestock, quite a bit of farm equipment, barns, horse trailers, campers,” said Tony Hafen, Washington County emergency services director. “They’re all on their way to Lake Mead.”

There were no reports of injuries, even though there was confusion when civil defense sirens blew shortly after midnight.

Some residents thought it was a New Year’s celebration, not an evacuation warning, officials said. Others attending New Year’s parties were away from their homes when the evacuation was ordered, St. George Mayor Carl Brooks said.

The flood closed Interstate 15--the main route between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles--where the freeway enters the narrow Virgin River Gorge south of St. George, but officials reopened the freeway about 14 hours later.

Bangerter said state engineers would try to determine the cause of the 300-foot-wide breach in the dike 14 miles east of St. George, a city of 20,800.

Power, Water Restored

St. George City Manager Gary Esplin said that by noon, electrical, water and other utilities had been restored to areas that had been flooded hours earlier. Evacuees were being allowed to return to their homes.

Authorities said 100 units of the upscale Riverside Apartments on the south end of St. George sustained water and mud damage. At the height of the flooding, water was reported window high.

Two bridges were washed out. Limited traffic was allowed to resume by noon on a third bridge connecting Bloomington and Bloomington Hills to St. George, authorities said.

In all, 25,000 acre feet of water rushed through the dike breach, but the flow had been reduced to a trickle by midday, said Ronald Thompson, chairman of the Washington County Water Conservancy District.

Thompson estimated it would take at least six months to design and rebuild the dike.

He said the dike had a history of seepage dating back to when the reservoir was filled in 1985, but previous leakage had been repaired with little difficulty.

Reinforcement Efforts Fail

He said new seepage was discovered at 10 a.m. Saturday, and by 8 p.m. what had been a small water loss had expanded to a major leak. Heavy equipment was dispatched to reinforce the dike, but by 10:30 p.m. it became apparent nothing could be done to stop the dike from failing and the machinery was pulled out.

Eight minutes into the new year, water poured through an ever-widening gap.

Local Mormon Church authorities opened their chapels to evacuated families and Red Cross officials appealed to community residents to open their homes to the displaced.

Dixie College, a state junior school, opened its gymnasium and a dormitory to families fleeing the floodwaters.

The flood knocked radio station KSGI off the air when it tore away the station’s river-side tower and transmitter, news director Jules Dinoff said.