Deluge in Moab deemed a 100-year flood

Moab resident: “Before we knew it, there was a car floating through the river.”

(Photo courtesy of City of Moab) Cars navigate high waters at the intersection of South Main Street and 100 South in Moab on Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022. Nearly an inch of rain fell in the area in 20 minutes, leading Mill Creek to overflow and causing flooding of up to 3 feet in depth in places.

Trails in Moab have been closed after a flood swept through the city Saturday night.

Between 1 and 1.5 inches of rain fell in the area and eastward that evening, according to the National Weather Service, including nearly an inch in a 20-minute span between 7:10 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. The downpour led to flooding of Moab’s downtown and surrounding areas. Videos of the flash flood show cars floating through streets on rushing currents and restaurants with shin-deep standing pools.

At one point, waters along Main Street reached 3 feet deep, according to city spokesperson Lisa Church. She said Sunday night that a city engineer has determined it is a 100-year flood, meaning it has a 1% chance of happening in any given year.

Moab has had two other flash floods in the past month. They also caused damage to the Mill Creek Parkway, a 2-mile paved trail that cuts through the middle of town alongside the creek it is named for.

But, Church said, “This one is definitely bigger than any of the others.”

The scale of the event prompted the city and Grand County on Sunday evening to issue emergency declarations. That makes funds and resources available to the community to help pay for damage caused by the flood.

On Sunday morning, after the water had subsided, leaving streets coated in mud, grass and debris, the city also issued an urgent warning that its Mill Creek Parkway trail system is closed until further notice. Parkway bridges and trailheads are also closed.

“It’s hazardous right now,” Church said, noting that roots of some trees have been exposed, making them susceptible to falling.

The parkway and its trailheads remained closed as of Wednesday, but most other recreation assets in and around Moab, including trails, state parks and national parks, are open.

Randall Lewis, who lives along Mill Creek just east of Moab, said he saw some cottonwood trees fall during the crux of the flooding, which he said took place between 11 p.m. and midnight. As waters rose into his yard — despite hardly any rainfall — he and his family drove their cars to higher ground, then returned to a high-ground area to survey what damage the creek would exact on his home.

“It just kept going up and up and up and up,” Lewis, 39, said, “and before we knew, it there was a car floating through the river.”

Randall said he did not believe anyone was in the car.

Church said some people are still without water after lines were damaged in the flood. The city is offering free showers at its aquatics center on Park Avenue. Sandbags are also available at the city’s public works yard, 470 Kane Creek Blvd.

This flood was caused when a storm system sat over Mill Creek for three hours, Church said.

However, she noted the creek has seen more flooding and debris recently as a delayed consequence of the Pack Creek Fire that burned on the La Sal mountain range above Moab last summer. Started by a campfire, the blaze encompassed about 8,400 acres. When it rains, water and debris rush unhindered over the burn scar into Pack Creek, which feeds into Mill Creek.

The NWS is calling for a chance of showers in the area again Thursday and Friday.

Aside from a yard full of mud and tree branches and other debris to clean up, Randall said his house and family weathered the flood without any real issues — this time.

“It’s going to happen again,” he said. “What I’ve been telling my kids for the last week is with each new one that comes through, it’s like, well, you know, that one on the 11th, that was pretty bad. But it can always get worse.”

Nearby areas also experienced flash flooding over the weekend. About 200 people were trapped when a flash flood shot through Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico on Saturday.

On Friday, a monsoon that hit Zion National Park, about five hours west of Moab, caused several hikers to be caught in a flash flood on The Narrows trail. Search and rescue teams are still looking for one of the hikers, 29-year-old Jetal Agnihotri of Tucson, Ariz., who was reported missing by members of her hiking party Friday evening.

Update: Aug. 21, 2:40 p.m. • This story has been updated to reflect that the Pack Creek Fire did not contribute to Saturday night’s flood.

Update: Aug. 24, 1:45 p.m. • This story has been updated to reflect that most trails and parks around Moab, other than Mill Creek Parkway, are open.