“Water, Water Everywhere,” New Era, Oct. 1983, 12
It was a nearly daily occurrence. Angry black clouds would stack on the western horizon, build up speed, and slam into the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. Like a rolling freight train, the clouds couldn’t quite make it up and over the grade of the mountains and would drop some of their cargo of moisture. As the clouds gained altitude, the sudden drop in temperature spun each drop into a tiny crystal flake. It snowed. Crisp, white mounds that covered the mountainsides. Most years the snow is welcomed. It means good skiing. It means plenty of water to irrigate crops. But last winter was different. There was too much snow.
It takes 12 inches of this powdery snow to make one inch of water. Usually every precious drop is treasured, collected into reservoirs, and stored until the hot, dry days of summer. Last year the high mountains had over 800 inches of snowfall—800 inches that would melt into 70 inches of water that had nowhere to go but down the mountains swelling streams to raging torrents.
There were going to be floods in the Salt Lake Valley and in the Utah valleys to the north and south. Everyone knew the floods were coming, but no one could foresee that man-made rivers would run down the streets of Salt Lake City. No one knew massive mud slides would wreck homes as the slides sought a new angle of repose. No one knew that teenagers would give up their youth conferences to spend their time mucking mud out of basements or spend all night patrolling streams that threatened to overflow their banks. No one knew that young people would work alongside their parents and leaders, spending hours filling sandbags and more hours stacking them around homes of people they had never met before just because it needed to be done. And no one knew that these young people would not expect praise. No one knew they would be so dedicated that they would continue to volunteer day after day until the danger of flooding had passed. But it happened.
In the spring, it rained a lot, much more than usual. The ground became soggy, then saturated. The earth could not absorb any more water. On hillsides, sections of mud and rock broke loose in devastating slides that wrapped around homes and crawled into basements and yards. Innocent streams became angry torrents that ate away at the banks, flooded farmland, swamped homes, and washed out roads. New lakes were formed where none were before. Dams were in danger of breaking. Rivers rose dangerously high.
Calls went out all hours of the day and night to ward leaders for volunteers to help sandbag. Young people left what they were doing to respond, thousands of them working together to help save neighborhoods and business districts from flood damage. They worked hard, harder than if they had been paid. But the rewards came, a tearful thank-you, a muddy handshake, or the satisfaction of seeing a squeegee-clean basement floor when it had once been covered with several feet of mud.
Youth were involved working side by side with their parents or in groups with friends, or just alone on a flood watch. Here are some of their stories.
“I was out in the front yard with my dad. We were getting ready to hose down the driveway and some of the furniture we had carried out of the basement. We had about six inches of flood water from the day before. All the stuff from our room in the basement was scattered on the front lawn drying out. We heard some rumbling way up the mountain but didn’t pay too much attention. Then it started to sound different. I had never heard that sound before, but I knew what it was. We looked up and saw the trees falling over like dominoes.”
Mac Sims, 13, remembers the moments just before a massive mud slide demolished his family’s home in Farmington, Utah. His brother Jeff, 16, who was in the house helping clean up after dinner, says, “Mom yelled at me, and I thought the stream had broken through with more water. I started out the back door to see, but she said to run and get in the car. I did what she said because she was nearly hysterical. I could tell something big was coming.” The Don Sims family piled into their car and pulled away from their house just a minute or two before tons of mud plowed into it, forcing it from its foundation and carrying it across the street. Although three of the children didn’t even have their shoes on when they got into the family car, at least the family of nine was all together with everyone safe and accounted for.
Jay Sims, 15, comments on the miracle that no one was hurt. “Twenty neighbors were in our basement about an hour before the slide helping us clean up from the floodwaters. If it had slid earlier, no one would have heard it coming, and it would have caught those people in our house.”
Mac continues telling about leaving their home. “We took off down the road. We saw our neighbors coming up the road, so we stopped them to tell them what was happening. We drove to a friend’s home who lived further up the hill. He got on his motorcycle and rode higher up the hill where he could see what was going on. He came back and said our whole house was gone. My parents were really glad we were together and everyone was safe.”
Since the Sims boys had their room in the basement of their home, all their belongings had been scattered on the lawn being washed and dried after the basement had been flooded. The mud simply rolled up their possessions and tossed them under the house. The mud ripped the bricks off their home and buried it up to the roof line. Some of their neighbors’ homes were also destroyed. As the mud made its way through town, its force diminished, although it still filled basements and covered lawns with several feet of oozing, sticky goo.
Even though the Sims brothers didn’t have their own house to clean, they were still involved in the cleanup efforts of their ward. The priests, teachers, and deacons quorums of the Farmington 1st Ward were given assignments to help people whose homes can be restored. The Sims brothers were there helping those who needed their help.
It was Memorial Day evening. Jason Booker, 13, told his mother he was going for a walk. He headed up the hill to the creek where the night before his father and some other men had built a rock wall to contain the high runoff. Jason was just going to see how it was holding up.
“I was in the circle in front of Sims’s house when I heard a rumbling and cracking noise. I looked up the hill and saw the trees falling over, and rock and mud was coming down. I ran down the street and told my parents. Some friends who were visiting us left. We got the younger kids out of bed and into the car. I walked back up the hill with my dad. We got to the edge of the circle, and the mud was completely surrounding the Sims house up to the eaves. It started to move, and we just got out of there.
“We drove out of the area. The officials wouldn’t let us back into our house that night because more mud slides were coming down. On Tuesday they let us back in to get some clothes and necessities. Our house was still okay on Tuesday, but when we woke up Wednesday morning, we saw our house on the national news. We didn’t even know the mud had hit it until then.”
Jason’s house wasn’t destroyed, but the basement was filled to the ceiling with mud and the house was surrounded by several feet of mud. With the help of ward members and volunteers, the Bookers are restoring their home.
The youth of the Bountiful Utah Central Stake were planning a youth conference for the first week in June. They were planning some exciting events right in their own area. They planned a day at a water slide, an evening barbecue, a day of workshops, a dance, and more. It was going to be great fun. But the week before their youth conference, mud slides and floodwaters had inundated dozens of homes in Bountiful. It didn’t seem quite right to be planning an activity when so many people needed help. The youth decided to cancel their youth conference and offer their time and strength in helping their neighbors.
Julie Merrill, Lisa and Lori Dearden, Michelle Reading, Jim Summers, Bob Foster, Betsy Ann Wiscombe, and Adam Birmingham and nearly 100 percent of the youth in their wards turned out dressed in old clothes and with shovels over their shoulders to be assigned a home to help clean. This group was shown to a home where mud had filled the bottom level.
At first the group gingerly waded into the mud careful not to get too much on their clothes, but as bucket after bucket was filled and lifted in a bucket brigade out of the house, they didn’t hesitate to get dirty. As the group was working, one boy called out, “I know a song we should sing. We should sing, ‘Give Said the Little Stream.’” His suggestion was met with groans. The heavy mud started to take its toll on young muscles, but their good spirits won out. Someone missed the bucket with a shovelful of mud. Another retaliated, and soon everyone was yelling to stop the mud fight, but since everyone was already covered, it did little damage.
The youth went back the next day and the next until the home they were working on was as clean as they could get it and ready for reconstruction work.
How did they feel about shoveling mud instead of having fun at their youth conference? Julie Merrill said, “It was nice to help other people. I was worn out, but I felt like I was helping. I didn’t really mind the change of plans.” Lori Dearden actually preferred the change of plans. “I’m still a Beehive so I couldn’t go to some of the joint activities at the youth conference, so I didn’t mind the change of plans. It was hard work, but we were really excited to finally see the floor. We left it really clean with all the walls washed down. It felt good to help.”
Some of the older boys were asked to help with the flood watch. Jeff Larsen spent several shifts from midnight to three in the morning patrolling the stream banks and cleaning drains to keep the water moving in its channel. “It was a strange feeling being out that late in the dark trying to see if something was going wrong. At first I felt nervous, but there was a good feeling of doing something that really needed to be done.” Jeff had to come home after each watch and try to get enough sleep before reporting to his job.
Even though their own homes were not directly involved in the flooding, the youth of the Bountiful 8th and 44th wards had nearly 100 percent participation by their youth in the cleanup effort. The consensus was that they were glad to help, and most thought it was a fine way to spend a youth conference.
Everyone called it the State Street River. It was a little strange to see a river flowing down what had been Salt Lake City’s major thoroughfare. But the temporary river helped save many areas such as Temple Square and the business district from being flooded. State Street River was formed between banks of literally hundreds of thousands of sandbags. In fact, so many burlap and cotton bags were ordered for flood duty that rice and bean growers in California couldn’t get enough to sack their crops.
Karen Cromar’s Laurel class from the Holladay 14th Ward went together to fill sandbags as a service project. But for Karen, that was just the beginning of her volunteer service. Karen said, “Filling sandbags just seemed like a more worthwhile activity than going to a leader’s house for dinner or something. I guess I’m the type that likes to be involved. When I found out that we were needed, my friends and I went back several more nights after work to help fill sandbags. It’s hard work. We would go for half an hour working really hard then take a break before starting all over again.”
The priests quorum in Karen’s ward was called out of Church meetings to help sandbag Big Cottonwood Creek, which was endangering hundreds of homes.
It was the type of crisis that didn’t go away in a few hours. The danger continued for weeks as the creek rose, but when the call went out for volunteers, young people responded in record numbers. But when they were asked individually how they felt about helping, the answer was nearly always the same, “It feels good to help where I’m really needed.”
Help was given freely to anyone who needed it. Ward organizations were used to make assignments, but those who were not members of the Church received the same care and consideration as their LDS neighbors.
Curt Dennis and his wife, Sharon, had moved into their home exactly one month before mud filled the basement and covered their yard. Discouraged by the sheer effort it would take to clean up, Curt was trying to decide where to start when he saw a most unusual sight. “It was fantastic. It was Sunday, and I was standing by my house when I saw a hundred people with shovels over their shoulders walking down the street. The last twenty or so peeled off and came over and started digging the mud out from around my home. They were the members of the wards around here. It was incredibly backbreaking work lugging mud out of here in wheelbarrows, but with two crews working all day, they accomplished more than I could have with the tractor I was planning on renting.”
The Dennises appreciated the help they received. “We are getting to know a lot of people really fast. We are so appreciative of the people just pitching in. There is no substitute for a lot of help.”
Curt has found that the experience has changed his mind on a lot of things. “I think the thing that felt best was people coming up and wanting to help. It wasn’t like they felt they had to; they really felt good about it. The fact that they were there helped us know that things would be all right.”
The floodwaters subsided. Left behind, besides the muck and mud, are the stories of young people really pitching in and helping where they were needed. There were few individual heroes. But there were those like the blind boy who came every day for a week with his brother to fill sandbags. There was the Mia Maid class who rescued rosebushes from the flow of mud that covered a yard. And the young men who stood in icy cold water stacking sandbags to protect the home of an elderly couple.
This response didn’t happen just in the Salt Lake Valley. It went on throughout Utah where the danger of flooding was a daily concern for weeks. The youth were there to help in Vernal, in Spanish Fork, in Fillmore, in Ogden, wherever there was danger.
It seemed that when they were needed, thousands of young people came through with the energy of youth and the humility of those who truly know how to serve.