HILDALE, UTAH – Search-and-rescue teams trudged through muddy streambeds Tuesday in a small polygamous town on the Utah-Arizona border, looking for four people who were missing after a devastating flash flood killed at least nine 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.
The four missing were among 13 children and three women in two vehicles that were smashed by a wall of water that carried them several hundred yards downstream Monday. Three people survived.
On Tuesday, the streets were caked in red mud, with mounds of dirt piled up by earth movers clearing the roads.
Residents called it the worst flood in memory for the community. The sister towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, are 315 miles (500 km) south of Salt Lake City.
The women and children hit by the flood were in an SUV and a van on a gravel road north of the towns. It appears they were coming back from a park when the flash flood hit, Assistant Fire Chief Kevin Barlow said.
The fast-moving water “obviously caught these people off guard,” Barlow said. “Witnesses say they were backing out of it, trying to get away from it and it still swept them in.”
The raging torrents of water 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 1½ inches (4 cm) of rain into a desert-like landscape with little vegetation and many steep slopes.
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.
The search effort temporarily eased the tension between followers of Jeffs and nonmembers who still live there. That split between loyalists who still believe Jeffs is a victim of religious persecution and defectors who are embracing government efforts to pull the town into modern society has sharpened in the four years since Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting underage girls he considered brides.