Officials in Utah said that eight people had died and five others were missing early Tuesday after floodwaters slammed into two vehicles carrying women and children in a small town near the Arizona border Monday afternoon.
The Utah Division of Emergency Management said in a Facebook post that heavy rains caused the flash flooding at about 5 p.m. local time Monday in Hildale, approximately 315 miles south of Salt Lake City. The statement said a “large wall of water and debris” smashed into the vehicles, washing them and their occupants downstream.
The women and children were in two different cars, a full size van and an SUV, on a gravel road north of the towns, Hildale assistant fire chief Kevin Barlow said. It appears they were coming back from a park in the area, backing their cars up when the flash flood hit, he said.
The flood “obviously caught these people off guard,” Barlow told The Associated Press. “Witnesses say they were backing out of it trying to get away from it and it still swept them in.”
The statement said there were 16 people in the vehicles. In addition to the dead and missing, authorities said the other three people had been rescued. One survivor was found downstream at a bank in town.
Barlow said the rescue effort was ongoing through the night but scaled back because of treacherous conditions in Hildale and its sister town, Colorado City, Ariz., Barlow said. Full-scale efforts were scheduled to resume at daybreak.
Fox 13 Now reported that three of the victims were mothers and one of the other victims was a 4-year-old.
The floods came after heavy rains fell in the canyons just north of town, sending waves of water barreling through the streets of the community of 7,700 people that is the home base of a polygamous sect run by Warren Jeffs.
The National Weather Service (NWS) said Monday that flash flooding in the Hildale area had resulted in overturned cars and flood damage along State Route 59. The flooding has also impacted several areas in the Colorado City and Hildale communities including flooded homes and streets and power outages.
The NWS had issued a flash flood warning earlier in the day, leading nearby Zion National Park to close all slot canyons as a precaution. Barlow said he doesn’t know if residents were aware of the warning.
He said water rises 1 to 1 1/2 feet at normal flood stage. “This was several feet deep, at least, and even more treacherous in the narrow channels.”
The flooding also caused other, less serious problems. Barlow said several blocks of home are without power and water due to the flooding.
“We’re pretty used to flash flooding,” Barlow said, “but this is significantly more than what we’re used to.” The National Weather Service is forecasting scattered rain and thunderstorms Tuesday in the area.
The community is a patchwork of upscale, elegant residences surrounded by large walls and unfinished, dilapidated houses that remain just as they were in the early 2000s, when Jeffs ordered that all construction stop in Utah to focus on building his compound in Texas.