Sep 16, 2015

A community mourns, but fractures remain after Hildale floods kill 12

The Salt Lake Tribune
September 15, 2015

Washes divide Hildale, Utah, and adjoining Colorado City, Ariz. A big one, called Short Creek Wash, is supposed to act like a big drainage ditch and runs at almost a 45-degree angle through the community.

Smaller washes connect to Short Creek Wash. At about 5 p.m. Monday, 16 people — women and children — were caught when water rushed from one of those smaller washes into Short Creek Wash. By Tuesday evening, authorities had confirmed 12 people were dead. One is missing. Authorities and residents confirmed that the three women killed were sisters: Della Johnson and Naomi and Josephine Jessop. The children had not been identified Tuesday night.

Naomi and Josephine Jessop were married to Joseph N. Jessop, who acknowledged Tuesday that his family was caught in the flood.

It's believed to be the most deadly single weather event in Utah history. As of Tuesday night, authorities had not disclosed the names of the dead or missing.

A flash-flood warning was in place on Tuesday, with more rain expected through the evening.

Religion divides this community, too. Short Creek is the home of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Many members have been evicted or left on their own in the past decade.

That division was on display Tuesday, too.

Family on the outside wondered what happened and what they could do to help, or whether they would be allowed.

Ben Black said he had been told his sister-in-law and some nieces and nephews were among those killed. But on Tuesday afternoon, he was waiting for official confirmation.

Black said FLDS leaders evicted him in 2012. Family still loyal to the church will not communicate with him. He was leery of reaching out to his brother.

Black said he is still a Christian and believes the disaster was meant to be.

"They're in a better place," Black said of his dead family members. "I'm not mad about it."

Floods arrived in Hildale about an hour before the disaster. Hildale Mayor Phillip Barlow said at a news conference Tuesday that the victims had been in Maxwell Park, which sits in a canyon on the northeast edge of town, watching flooding there. When they traveled down Canyon Street to go home, they found that water had flooded a wash that crosses it.

John Barlow lives on the north side of that wash. He was stranded on the south side when the rains came. He watched the people in two vehicles, a van and an SUV, get out to view the water.

Barlow assumes that a debris dam then broke. He said the water in the wash rose 7 feet in 30 seconds, overflowing the banks.

"It was a wall," Barlow said in an interview Tuesday. "It was boom, boom, boom."

The people on the other side returned to their vehicles and tried to back up and get away, but the water overtook them. The flood swept away the van and SUV. Responders later found them about one-quarter mile away.

A search for the victims continued until darkness Monday, resumed at dawn Tuesday and continued into the evening. According to Washington County Emergency Services, the searches were "scaled back" just before 7 p.m. Those efforts were expected to continue on Wednesday morning if the remains of the last missing person had not been found.

Washington County Sheriff Cory Pulsipher said the ninth body was found in Arizona, about 5 miles from the initial scene.

The sheriffs in Washington County, Utah, and Mohave County, Ariz., so distrust the police force in Short Creek, referred to as marshals, that they have their own deputies patrol the area.

Deputies from both counties are expected to be witnesses at a January civil trial in Phoenix, where the U.S. Department of Justice will allege the town governments discriminate against people who do not follow FLDS leaders.

But Pulsipher on Tuesday said his deputies and the marshals were cooperating and had worked together to document the disaster scenes and notify families of the victims.

"There have not been any issues," Pulsipher said.

About 100 law enforcement and other personnel were helping with cleanup and recovery, and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert had authorized the state's National Guard to join the effort, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said.

"We just want Hildale to know we love you, we're thinking about you and we're here to serve you," Cox said before touring the scene.

Private contractors were using heavy machinery to remove debris and help look for victims. At least some of those contractors were from businesses known to be loyal to the FLDS church.

Paul Beagley was running a skid loader. He is the president of Phaze Concrete, which was the subject of a Tribune investigation published in August, detailing how it has underpaid workers and used teen laborers to send money to the FLDS.

For all the conflict in Short Creek — from its history as a refuge for polygamy, to government raids, to allegations of widespread sex abuse to displaced families and the civil rights lawsuit being prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice — residents say the towns have been relatively free of natural disasters.

Former FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop said the flooding deaths have devastated the tiny community and served to underscore the tensions in a place where families have been splintered, some remaining faithful to the imprisoned Jeffs, while others have left or been excommunicated.

"The emotional tear of this thing is so deeply felt, it's just a tragedy," he said. "It's the largest amount of death in a single event ever in our community, and it just cuts really deep."

In the midst of their community grief, FLDS and non-FLDS are trying to help each other, although Jessop said it's awkward and difficult.

"People have been forced to cooperate and help each other," he said.

No one on Tuesday laid flowers or stuffed toys at the scene where the vehicles were swept away. FLDS leaders are reclusive. None appeared in public or issued any statements Tuesday.

Charlie Barlow, a longtime resident of Hildale, said he saw no signs the residents were uniting, even if they might be working together. Charlie Barlow said he is the Hildale mayor's younger half-brother.

On Tuesday afternoon, when the mayor came out of town hall, Charlie Barlow touched him on the arm and said hello.

The mayor said nothing.

"He was clearly ignoring me," Charlie Barlow said.

Reporters Bob Mims, Pamela Manson and Erin Alberty contributed to this coverage.

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