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Fri, Nov. 22

1983 flood ranks among Prescott's worst

Courier file

Courier file

PRESCOTT - Thirty years ago today, Prescott residents awoke to a situation not so different from the one Colorado residents recently endured.

Upended cars, collapsed houses in the creek, and a community left without water, natural gas, and train tracks: These were among the images that met Prescott residents on the morning of Sept. 23, 1983.

From 1 to 7 a.m. on that Friday, nearly eight inches of rain fell on portions of Prescott. By the time the storm ended the next day, the area had received about 14.5 inches of rain.

That was a good chunk of the 19.63 inches in annual precipitation that Prescott was averaging at the time. And it compares with the 17.7 inches that the community of Boulder, Colo. has received so far this September, causing record floods throughout that region.

The brunt of the Prescott's 1983 rainfall hit the Granite Mountain area, sending torrents of water down Willow Creek and the Skull Valley Wash.

The rushing water took its toll - flooding out houses along Jack Drive and virtually destroying an entire mobile home park off Lorraine Drive near Willow Creek Road.

The headline in the Sept. 23 edition of the Prescott Courier summed it up: "Destruction." For days afterward, the flood and its aftermath occupied the news of the day in Prescott.

Although the community of Skull Valley escaped much of the rainfall, it could not avoid the runoff that tore down the Skull Valley Wash, taking with it cars and homes.

Underground utilities were not immune. The water ripped out the city's two main water lines from Chino Valley, along with natural-gas lines and a sewer line. It also washed out more than a mile of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad line, dealing the final blow to the city's freight-train service.

Willow Creek, which is often no more than a trickle, took on a life of its own that day. At one point, the creek was estimated at 800 feet wide.

To this day, residents from the time remember the 1983 flood as one of the worst ever to hit the community.

"As far as the flood damage, that's the one that stands out in my career," said Bob Hardy, who worked as assistant city engineer at the time, and later went on to work in Florida and for the City of Cottonwood.

Hardy recalls working around the clock with the Prescott public works department to restore the city water lines that were washed out in Bottleneck Wash northeast of Prescott.

The 14-inch and 18-inch water lines "were encased in concrete, and they were buried six or eight feet down," Hardy said. "The water came through and just ripped it out."

At the time, Goldwater Lake was still an option for the city's water supply. "The city was pretty much out of water, except for the feed from Goldwater Lake," Hardy said.

For days, the National Guard hauled in water for residents. Although officials initially estimated that restoration of water could take as long as a week, the Courier reported on Sept. 27 that most of the city water service had been restored.

Hardy, who is also a meteorologist, estimated that the storm measured in the 200-to-300-year-storm range.

Along with its strength, the storm's speed and relatively isolated breadth also impressed residents from the time.

"It just came so quick - all of a sudden, we were flooded," said former City Councilwoman Mary Ann Suttles, who lived at the time with her young family off Pleasant Valley Drive.

Although the house was ultimately spared severe damage, Suttles said the family had to evacuate. "It was scary to see houses tumble into the creek," she said. "I never have felt such a loss of power. It was an empty feeling to have somebody else telling you 'you're leaving.'"

Prescott Valley Economic Development Director Greg Fister, who worked as a Prescott Courier reporter at the time, said he wasn't even aware of the storm until about 6 a.m. when he got the call from the Courier to report to work.

"I remember thinking, 'that can't be,'" Fister said of the reports of major flooding. At his home near Copper Basin Road, he said the storm was almost non-existent.

"If it rained at all in south Prescott, it was not very much," Fister said. "It sure wasn't raining hard were I lived."

When he got to work, however, Fister saw the reality for much of the community. "I talked to homeowners on Geneva Drive who had lost a corner of their house," he said. "They were rescued by the fire department in the middle of the night with a rope rescue."

He also drove to the low-water crossing of Willow Creek on Jack Drive. "Where Jack Drive crosses Willow Creek, I remember watching a house fall into the creek," Fister said.

Former Police Chief Robert Reed, who was a police officer at the time, was in the process of building a house in the Pleasant Valley Drive area. He remembers that a drainage easement on Willow Creek caused flood damage to the basement and garage of the house.

Looking back, Hardy is struck by the lack of almost any hint that the storm was coming.

The day before, he said, "The sky wasn't black," and weather reports offered no inkling of what was to come.

"It's amazing to me how much advancement we've had in technology since then," he said. "I don't think there was ever a warning issued."

As a resident of the Montaña area, Hardy felt the full brunt of the storm. He remembers that he had seven to eight inches of hail at his front door, and also measured about six inches in his rain gauge.

Hardy later wrote an article for a public works publication, and described the storm as "an especially strong impulse of unstable, moisture-laden air," which moved northward toward central Arizona. Thunderstorms developed as the air mass encountered the Bradshaw Mountains, he added.

Sources also attribute the storm to Tropical Storm Octave, although the Prescott storm preceded the main Octave activity. The tropical storm caused flooding throughout Arizona in late-September, and left behind damages of more than $500 million. Hardy estimated the damage to Prescott utilities and roads at more than $1 million.

No deaths were reported in Prescott.

On Willow Creek, Reed said, floodwaters were relatively fleeting. "The waters receded rapidly," he said. "(Willow Creek flooding) dissipates very rapidly."

Follow Cindy Barks on Twitter: @Cindy_Barks.

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