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California and the West

Several Missing After Flash Floods Rip Through Arizona Farm Towns

Disasters: Possible victims include five migrant workers who lived near wash. Search for two other people is called off.

October 24, 2000|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Authorities in western Arizona were chasing reports of several missing people Monday after flash floods ripped through two small farming communities about 100 miles west of Phoenix on Sunday.

Among the missing were five migrant workers who had been living in trailers near the Centennial Wash, which funneled storm water into the area, said La Paz County Sheriff's Deputy Karen Harris. It was possible, however, that they had just left the area, she said.

Authorities also searched by helicopter for two people who reportedly were swept away by a torrent that coursed wildly through a normally dry desert wash without warning. By day's end, however, that search was called off because witness reports couldn't be confirmed, the Sheriff's Department said.

Residents of the small towns of Wenden and Salome, just north of Interstate 10, said the flood waters came with no warning before dawn Sunday, trapping some in their homes and sending others to rooftops and into trees, Harris said.

About 200 people were rescued--by boat, skip loaders and at least 11 by military helicopters, she said.

There were no confirmed fatalities, and Harris said officials held out hope that the missing people were safe but hesitant to come forward because they were undocumented migrant workers.

The flooding was triggered by more than an inch of rain that fell suddenly Sunday morning in foothills northeast of the two towns.

"We didn't know anything until the runoff hit us," said Harris, who aided in the rescues.

"I was waist-high in water, walking into people's houses," she said. "It was dark, cold and very wet, and people were trapped in their homes."

At daybreak--and continuing into Monday--rescue workers viewed the continuing destruction as water swept over vehicles, dislodged mobile homes from their foundations, tore through small houses and turned travel trailers topsy-turvy.

"The level has gone down quite a bit, but the water is still running so high that we can't conduct search operations along the wash," Harris said Monday afternoon.

About 600 residents were evacuated from the two towns. Many found shelter with family or friends, but about 200 accepted Red Cross shelter in Parker, about 40 miles away.

Grief counselors were dispatched to the shelter, said Red Cross spokeswoman Andrea Munzer. "A lot of people said they barely escaped with their lives," she said. "It's overwhelming."

One man, Munzer said, reported that he was sitting in his pickup truck when he "saw a wall of water coming toward him. He said he just barely made it to the bed of his truck, and then had to swim from it."

Local officials declared a state of emergency in Wenden on Monday, and officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency were expected to arrive today.

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