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Southern Utah assessing damage as rain clears out


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SALT LAKE CITY — The storm system that has deluged areas of Utah's Dixie as well as neighboring states is finally headed east, bringing much needed relief to beleaguered residents.

But the National Weather Service reported Thursday that the flooding and fast-moving and rising rivers would persist across southern Utah throughout the day. A flood warning remained in effect until 3 p.m. Thursday for western Kane and Washington counties, but forecasters believe the worst may be over.

It's "safe to say that … by late tonight (or Friday) morning, the flood stages won't be a concern anymore," said KSL meteorologist Grant Weyman. The weather should be clear for at least the next few days, he added.

"Basically, (the storm) is over and we don't have to worry anymore at this point," he said.

Floods of 2005 helped preparedness efforts

A spokesman for the city of St. George said despite that heavy rainfall and water flows, the area was able to withstand the flooding rather well compared to the flooding that occurred five years ago.

"Compared to 2005, the damage (from this storm) was substantially less on all accounts," Marc Mortensen said. "We had no substantial injury to anyone … and we're now transitioning from an emergency mode to a recovery mode."

Overall, we're told there is about $20 million in damage to Washington County, but it could've been $155 million in damage if not for all the preparations taken after the 2005 floods.

No homes or businesses were lost, but some trails and golf cart bridges were washed out.

Mortensen attributes the mild damages to improvements made following the floods of '05. He said the city and county spent about $65 million to reinforce rock walls and flood channels in and around the city.

"We were better prepared (this time)," he said. "If we would have had been in the same condition we were in 2005 with this flood, the devastation would have been much worse."

He said officials would begin assessing damage on Monday, giving residents time to "decompress" over the holiday weekend. For now, he was just thankful that most residents in the city of 75,000 can look forward to a few days of sunshine following a week of Mother Nature's wrath.

"I can actually see blue sky and I can say it's probably the best thing I've seen in seven days," said Mortensen.

In 2005, flooding along the Santa Clara River destroyed dozens of homes, gobbled up acres of land and ruined numerous city parks, miles of trails and damaged local golf courses. Both the Santa Clara River and the Virgin River surged out of control for days, eventually moving beyond established flood plains and causing long-term worries for many residents living near the new river channels.

City and county officials quickly sought federal and state help in paying for the more than $185 million in estimated public and private losses due to flooding.

Mortensen said this flood included about 40 percent more water flow, but because of upgrades, damage was not as extensive.

"Having gone through that experience, it did prepare us for a bigger one, which this one was," he said.

Zion National Park

Meanwhile, the Zion Canyon section of Zion National Park reopened to the public on Thursday morning. However, some trails remain closed until a damage assessment and necessary repairs can be completed.

Visitors are advised to stay away from river and stream banks. The saturated soil will make additional landslides and rockfalls a possibility for the next several days.

Visitors should be cautious while driving or hiking in the park.

Park Rangers will be patrolling the park and providing visitor assistance.

For current park information, visit www.nps.gov/zion.

Washington County

In Washington County, crews are also moving to recovery mode as they try to restore access to areas that are still isolated due to heavy water flows. That work may take a day or two to accomplish, according to county emergency services director Pete Kuhlmann.

He said water levels are still high in some areas, and present some potential hazards. But, overall, most of the damage this time was mitigated by the work done following the '05 storm surge.

Washington County Administrator Dean Cox says they have completed a preliminary damage assessment. Even though the water volume exceeded flows of 2005, the damage was considerable lower than then, he said.

"We didn't have houses falling into the river like we did before and that was from those (improvement) projects … after the 2005 floods," Kuhlmann said.

Even though much of the danger seems to have passed without any fatalities or significant injuries, he still had words of warning to residents and their families.

"We hold our breath every time," he said. "The water is still flowing and the stream banks are still saturated, so (people) need to stay away from the water."

"It would be tragic to lose somebody now that (things) are starting to wind down," Kuhlmann said.

Enterprise

Like everywhere else, Enterprise is drying out. There are still lots of sandbags throughout town and Shoal Creek is still a lot higher than normal, but things are looking a lot better now than they were Wednesday, when the water was getting close to maybe going over a bridge.

Just outside of town is a spot that will need some work, though. Water undercut he road leading to the upper and lower Enterprise Dams and reservoir and basically washed it out. There are chunks of asphalt laying on the banks of the water after falling down.

Water is still flowing rapidly from the Enterprise dams, but dam engineers say they are safe. The washed out road just makes it more difficult to get to the dams.

Residents we spoke with would just like to see the damage fixed soon.

Enterprise resident Phyllis Cooper said, "This is a lot of recreation up here, and this is all of our farmers' livelihood, the water for the valley. This is a big part of Enterprise."

Enterprise mayor Lee Bracken said, "Had some water in basements at one time. We had a major stream flow coming right into our city limits, but things are looking good."

Gunlock

Things are also looking better in Gunlock. Water levels on the Santa Clara River are down there. Some land was lost and swept into the river, but there are no injuries reported.

Officials were originally concerned because there is one road in and out of town and it is closed. Now they say bridges are intact and vehicles will be able to pass once the road reopens.

Crews will be looking at damage from river spillways in the area.

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Story written by Jasen Lee with contributions from Alex Cabrero.

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