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Flooded community builds fortress and waits

By Laurel Morales

Flagstaff, AZ – The community that lives at the base of the San Francisco Peaks on the northeast side of Flagstaff has had a rough summer. First it was the threat of fire and now water. Since the monsoons began the neighborhoods have experienced two devastating floods. And they're anticipating more. Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales takes a tour of the flooded neighborhoods.

Coconino County Emergency Manager Sherrie Collins drives the county's big white truck north on 89 and points out the new ditch that the Arizona Department of Transportation is digging to divert water to Cinder Lakes.

"It's probably about almost 10 feet deep right now and it hasn't breached but it's come close."

Collins turns into Wupatki Trails. Beyond the 89 Mesa fire that burned in May you can see the impact of last month's Schultz Fire on the mountains. The fire scorched 15-thousand acres of dense forest. And much of the Schultz burned so hot the soil became water repellent.

Many of the homeowners have built a fortress of sandbags and large cement barricades called jersey barriers.

"Those homes had jersey barriers some actually knocked over. These are 7 ton jersey barriers. Had that work not been done even places where the sheet flow there would've been a lot more damage."

Hydrologists say when rain pours onto the mountain, it rushes down and spreads out like an alluvial fan and covers a lot of territory. The roads become rushing streams strong enough to sweep someone away. During the summer's most intense flood a 12-year-old girl was swept away and killed.

Many of the homes look abandoned. Collins points to one that is.

"This house is the main target. This home has been abandoned by renters. They said, we're done. We can't take it anymore.'"

Some people have had to move so many are paying a mortgage and rent. Many bought flood insurance after the fires but are stuck in the middle of a 30 day waiting period. FEMA has not granted a waiver.

She stops in front of a home that looks as if it has been turned inside out. Much of the furniture has been pulled out into the front yard. Collins says the force of the mudslide pushed it off of its foundation.

"They had 3-4 feet of mud work all the way through the house."

In front of some homes people have built dams out of rocks and mud. Collins says this can create a problem. If the water is forced onto a neighbor's property, they become liable under state law.

"We've had neighbors in some major arguments. We've had a gun pulled on a neighbor."

Other problems Collins and emergency crews have encountered are exposed utilities and the threat of e-coli. The Coconino County Health Department is offering free Hepatitis A and Tetanus vaccinations for people digging out mud and debris.

"We've tested some of the water and it's high in those levels we have a lot of horse properties and all that the water coming down from the forest animal fecal matter I'm not sure it's human most of the septic systems that we've inspected seem to be ok."

Sherrie, what's this been like for you on a day to day basis? (laughs) "It just doesn't end. It just seems like it's a continuation of constant impact to this community and the county so it's been tough."

Coconino County has had four major fires and two floods, and Collins doesn't know when it will end.

"This is probably far worse or equally worse because it doesn't stop. A fire comes through does its damage but there's an end to it you know when you go into recovery you know when you start to rebuild. What do you tell these residents? I mean do they have these sandbags and jersey barriers around their homes for the next 5 years?"

Collins says it will take three to five years for plants to take hold on the mountain and for flood potential to return to pre-fire conditions.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.