Eli McCann: Have floods, will sandbag — hey, it’s the Utah way

From the massive disaster of 1983 to the limited damage of 2023, we showed up — bad hairdos and all.

(The Salt Lake Tribune) Flooded State Street in June 1983.

My parents have a picture in their house of my two older sisters standing in front of a wall of sandbags. It’s from the spring of 1983. It was taken on Salt Lake City’s State Street, not far from the Eagle Gate arch.

This photo was a regular feature at school show-and-tell exercises throughout the 1980s and ‘90s in my family because of the story it told, a story I wasn’t yet alive to experience (I was born the following year).

The winter of 1982–83 had brought a healthy snowpack to the Wasatch Front, one that overwhelmed our then-existing infrastructure when a precipitous runoff began flooding our state’s capital the following spring.

“It seemed like everyone in the valley showed up downtown to place sandbags along State Street,” my dad told me once. Maybe this is why my parents had to bring their two children, then ages 5 and 3, to the disaster site — there were no babysitters available since every shoulder in the valley was put to the wheel. Also, my fuzzy memory of being a small boy in the latter half of that decade leads me to believe there were few safety practices in the ‘80s, so I’m sure no one batted an eye when my hippie parents brought their toddlers to a flood like it was a tame water park for children.

(McCann family) Eli McCann's sisters, Krisanda, left, and Krishelle, show up with their parents to help sandbag State Street in downtown Salt Lake City during the flooding of 1983.

Flood fears of 2023

Last year, my husband, a Salt Lake City transplant, walked into the house one day after work, kicked off his snow boots, and shouted, “Should we be worried about flooding?”

It was March, and he was referring to the fact that we were on the tail end of a winter of record snowfall. I told him that although I hadn’t personally experienced a winter quite that snowy before, Salt Lake City had seen some flooding in 1983 and my parents were part of a community mitigation effort, made up largely of dads and moms in acid wash jeans and sporting bad mustaches and mullet perms. Somehow, without the use of cellphones and social media accounts to organize the assembly, they showed up to create temporary rivers down city streets to collect and ship the excess water to the Great Salt Lake.

Twenty minutes later, I found my husband slouched in front of his laptop watching news footage from that year reporting on the cleanup. As one segment ended with videos of a stripe-shirted volunteer assembly line of neighbors passing sandbags down the street, he choked up slightly and said, “I’m so proud of us for all coming together and helping.”

I told him I was impressed that he had managed to take partial credit for the actions of a community he’s not from during a time he wasn’t even alive to witness, but he waved me away. “Oh, you know what I mean.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mayor Erin Mendenhall and numerous volunteers pile sandbags along 1700 South in Salt Lake City in an effort to divert the rising flow of Emigration Creek through Wasatch Hollow Park on Wednesday, April 12, 2023.

It was only a few weeks later when he came home again and informed me there was a need for volunteers at Sugar House Park for sandbag filling, the first of many preparation and cleanup efforts we saw throughout the state in 2023. For the next couple of months, we tracked the flooding and community efforts to redirect water and minimize damage to property and life, helping when we could.

By season’s end, this publication, among others, reported extensively on the relative success of these efforts, noting that, thanks to prudent government funding and investment, with an assist from volunteers across the state, many disasters were averted.

“I’m so proud of us,” my husband told me once again before I reminded him that all we did was fill a few sandbags alongside hundreds of our neighbors.

“I don’t mean you and me,” he countered. “I’m proud of the whole community.”

It was a reminder I receive often — that he’s a better person than me, not the least of which because he implicitly manages to consider all other humans as a part of the greater “us,” even in contexts where they did something before he was born.

Seeing the best in people

(The Salt Lake Tribune) Volunteers pass sandbags in an effort to control flooding in City Creek Canyon during the flood of 1983.

It’s nice living with a man who sees people, often in a communal sense, for their best parts. And if not that, at least for what they could be. It technically means I can get away with bad behavior more than if I had married someone critical.

I acknowledge I have to sometimes fight off the tendency, perhaps all too common among many of us, to feel cynical about these issues. To wonder if we’ve lost that drive to care about our neighbor, the same drive that propelled the mullets and bad mustaches in 1983 to toss their toddlers onto sandbags so they could join assembly lines of people who showed up simply because they were needed. A quick perusal of social media on any given day sure seems to support the results of my light ongoing audit on humanity.

Then again, the only reason I didn’t feel my husband and I could take much credit for managing the 2023 flooding was because hundreds of our neighbors were already stuffing sandbags when we showed up, so there really wasn’t much left for us to do. I’m not sure why my brain sometimes wants me to think those people are not the norm — a more accurate reflection of what most of us are, or at least want to be when we’re willing to take a deep breath and try not to see strangers as enemies.

I don’t know whether there will be a need for sandbags this spring. But I’m sure there won’t be a shortage of volunteers if we do happen to see some flooding. And I guess I’m proud of us for that.

I’m already growing out my permed mullet in preparation.

(Courtesy) Tribune humor columnist Eli McCann.

Eli McCann is an attorney, writer and podcaster in Salt Lake City, where he lives with his husband and their two naughty (yet worshiped) dogs. You can find Eli on X, formerly known as Twitter, at @EliMcCann or at his personal website, www.itjustgetsstranger.com, where he tries to keep the swearing to a minimum so as not to upset his mother.