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Tragedy Prompts Another Look at Flash Flood Deaths

Used by permission
David Rankin recapped the deadly weather situation leading into Monday's flash flood tragedy in southern Utah.

This text was updated on 9/18 with the latest death tally.  

Weather forecasters say the risk of flash floods is fadingin southwestern Utah after waves swept 20 people to their deaths on Monday. Meanwhile, forecasters are already looking towards preventing future tragedies.

Monday’s flash floods were Utah’s deadliest weather disaster ever, and Randy Graham doesn’t want to see that record broken. Leader of the National Weather Service office in Salt Lake City, he was headed to Hildale on Wednesday to meet with community leaders.

“One thing that we really want to focus on as we look at this tragic event is the communication aspect,” he says.

Graham’s office issued flash flood warnings hours before massive waves of storm runoff killed members of a polygamous family in Hildale and a group of canyoneers in Zion National Park. Graham says the challenge has always been to make sure people get the alerts they need to stay out of danger.

“The issuance of the warning is only one part of it,” he says, “but the key is that the people on the other end are taking an action based on that threat.”

A weather service rain gauge on Short Creek in Hildale showed stormwater surged in the mid-afternoon Monday. Another downpour 90 minutes later doubled water levels in the creek bed to 6 feet in just ten minutes.

“If there’s a takeaway message,” says southern Utah stormchaser David Rankin, “it’s -- if you’re going to go out and try to watch flash floods or be anywhere near these things -- you have to respect the power of the water.”

Rankin calls deaths from flash floods preventable.

Agriculture officials said Wednesday that southwestern Utah has already received double September’s normal monthly rain in just two weeks.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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