‘Resources are in place’: Washington County ready to respond to major flooding incidents

ST. GEORGE — With snowpack across Utah at record highs, the melt caused by rising temperatures is being closely monitored by public and emergency management officials throughout the state. And worries that the 1983 flood will repeat itself have emerged due to similar conditions.

Flooding in Salt Lake City, Utah, circa June 1983 | Photo by S. Thiriot vis Cache Valley Daily, St. George News

Even as local rivers run high with the melting of the snowpack in nearby mountains, a major flooding incident has yet to take place in Washington County. However, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen or that civic and emergency officials are being lax in their preparation.

“There’s always a possibility of major flooding,” Kevin Whipple, director of Washington County Emergency Services, told St. George News on Wednesday. “Resources are in place and ready to go.”

Because a sudden spike in temperatures or rain could cause a rapid melt and subsequent flooding, emergency officials say they hope the runoff will be gradual.

“As we mark the 40th Anniversary of the 1983 floods, it’s important to note that some similarities exist this year,” a press release for the Utah Division of Emergency Management states. “We have received record snowpack with record snow water equivalent (30 inches in 2023 compared to 26″ inches in 1983). We are already seeing isolated incidents of flooding, with a potential for widespread flooding, depending on the temperatures and rate of melt and runoff.”

As for Washington County, Mother Nature has been cooperating thus far.

So far so good

“Right now, the way things are shaping up, we’re really good,” Whipple said. “We haven’t had any major spikes in (river) flows.”

Pallets of sandbags are stacked by the Virgin River by the Sullivan Soccer Park in Washington City, Utah, April 13, 2023 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

The Santa Clara and Virgin rivers have been seeing high flows since mid-March. These flows tend to peak in the evening around 9-10 p.m. and then recede until they rise again as the cycle of gradual increase and decrease takes place, Whipple said.

That’s not to say there haven’t been any issues. There’s still a lot of water running off the mountains and it has flooded portions of some backcountry roads. As long as people don’t attempt to cross a flooded roadway, this issue will resolve itself as water levels recede.

“Other than that, it’s not been bad,” Whipple added. “It’s been really good how its (the snowpack has) come off.”

As of Thursday, snowpack in southwest Utah sits at just over 300% of normal. At the start of the month, it was at 323%.

State and county flood preparation

A part of the county’s own flood preparation includes staging sandbags, heavy equipment and other flood-mitigating measures at potential flood locations throughout the county. This will allow county personnel to respond to flooding in that area faster rather than losing time as they rush equipment in from somewhere else.

The Virgin River running high due to melting snowpack as seen from the south side of the Mall Drive Bridge in St. George, Utah, April 13, 2023 | Photo By Mori Kessler, St. George News

The county also recently received 100,000 sandbags from the Utah Division of Emergency Management. Those sandbags are part of the 1.5 million the division has distributed across the state as of last Monday, according to a press release.

“We are coordinating with state agencies and local and tribal emergency managers and encouraging the review of plans and procedures, and conducting educational flood awareness campaigns in their communities,” Kris Hamlet, director of the Division of Emergency Management, said in the press release. “We are also providing emergency managers with information on the disaster documentation process, should flood damages occur. It is important, however, that everyone, not just emergency managers, do their part to prepare for flooding, or for any other type of hazard.”

What can the public do to prepare?

Both Whipple and the Division of Emergency Management shared information and tips for flood preparation they encourage the public to take advantage of.

For people in Washington County who want to stock up on sandbags, Whipple said the county has sent empty sandbags and sand to fire stations across the county for people to grab and fill. There is an initial limit of 25, but arrangements can be made for more if needed.

High water at the Lava Flow Drive Bridge in Santa Clara, Utah, April 13, 2023 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

“We will help you,” he said to those in need of sandbags.

There is also a list on the county emergency service’s website of local businesses that sell sandbags.

People can stay up to date with area emergency notifications via Facebook and Twitter, as well as by registering with 911register.com. They can also text WCFLOOD to 888777 for current emergency information and instructions regarding flooding.

In the case of flooded roads, Whipple repeated what public safety and emergency managers have stressed many times before – do not attempt to drive across a flooded roadway. There is no telling what obstructions may be hidden under the water, and a swift current may be able to take a vehicle along with it.

“Have common sense and don’t put yourself in danger,” Whipple said.

The Utah Division of Emergency Management suggests the following:

Protect valuables by taking videos and pictures of them. Get waterproof containers in which to store important documents and valuables, and move valuables to a higher floor, if flooding is imminent.

Consider buying flood insurance, since most homeowners insurance doesn’t cover flood damage. Just one inch of water in a home can cause $25,000 or more in damages. Homeowners and renters should act now as there is a 30 day waiting period before a policy goes into effect.

Reach out to your local public works or emergency management departments to find out about ways to help mitigate flooding by clearing canals, ditches, streambeds, and culverts of debris.

Whipple also recommends that families have an evacuation plan and “grab-and-go” packs filled with essentials and important documents that can be taken at a moment’s notice. Having arrangements for a backup shelter during an emergency evacuation is also suggested.

More information on flooding and disaster preparation can be found on the Washington County Emergency Services and Utah Division of Emergency Management websites.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

Free News Delivery by Email

Would you like to have the day's news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!