Joyce Jones was making a left turn at the intersection of Center and Main when she ran headlong into the wettest February in 40 years. Her car gurgled to a halt, and its interior began filling like a dishwasher starting the rinse cycle.
"I went to turn and it just dropped off the edge," said Jones, who escaped from her drowning car.
Nine days of nearly unremitting rain and snow have turned Heber City's Main Street -- normally a six-lane thoroughfare carrying traffic past the low-slung Wasatch County courthouse and the tall, red-brick Mormon tabernacle -- into a fast-flowing river. The runoff water overwhelmed the creeks and irrigation channels surrounding this farm town in the mountains southeast of Salt Lake City.
Here in northern Utah, as in five other western states inundated by the unexpected February rains, tired, muddy work crews were struggling to assert control over the floods, avalanches and mud slides that have ravaged the region.
There was something of a respite today as the weather improved marginally -- the official forecast of "partly cloudy, occasional rain" was right on the money. But the day was too forbidding to give anyone much confidence that the long wet spell has ended.
The entire Great Salt Lake basin today looked like the portrayal of a bad dream in a low-budget European art film. An opaque blanket of misty cloud hung low over the valleys, sending hundreds of tendrils down like fluffy feathers to tickle the earth. The snowy peaks of the Wasatch and Uinta mountains stood out like vaguely menacing daggers in the haze.
The National Weather Service forecast additional precipitation through the weekend as another clump of moist air was heading in from the Pacific.
The good news here in Utah was that the temperature was dropping. That meant the precipitation might fall in its more familiar February form: snow.
The big weather problem throughout the Rockies for the past week has been not just the heavy precipitation but its occurrence during an unusually warm mid-winter. As a result, the clouds have dropped rain instead of snow. Meanwhile, huge quantities of snow at the lower elevations have melted, bringing on runoffs much greater than the complex network of natural gulches and manmade canals can handle.
Flooding from swollen rivers and creeks in northern Utah has caused about $2 million worth of damage in the past week, Gov. Norman Bangerter (R) said today. That is a serious but not devastating total in a region that expects some flooding every few years.
At elevations of 7,000 feet and upwards, the big threat posed by the storms has been avalanches, as large quantities of wet, heavy snow are shaken loose by wind.
At the Alta ski resort, authorities today finished their search of a ski run that was swept by an avalanche Wednesday afternoon, killing a 16-year-old skier. Authorities concluded today that no one else had been trapped in the slide.
Investigations are under way as to why skiing was permitted in an area prone to having an avalanche. The initial explanation from the ski area was that the avalanche started in a part of the resort that was closed to skiers and fell with such force that the snow poured uphill over the lip of a bowl and then roared onto an open ski trail.
At lower elevations, authorities today expressed concern about potential mud slides because of soil saturation from rain and melting snow. "The soil is just like soup," said Salt Lake County flood control director Terry Holzworth. "Large masses of land -- including trees -- are beginning to move."
Heavy rain and warm temperatures have accelerated a natural process that usually lasts months.
A hillside covered with snow is nature's water tank. Normally, the hills here collect snow all winter. The gradual melt from late March to mid-June carries this stored water along creeks and canals in manageable amounts. This year, this basin has experienced almost an entire spring's runoff in one week.