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Don’t Drown Success Story in Utah

By Kevin Barjenbruch, WCM, Salt Lake City, UT  

The date was July 14, 2004. Five students with the Bureau of Land Management and their instructor were in a vehicle on Cottonwood Canyon Road heading to Cottonwood Wash for a field trip.

Figure 1. Brian McInerney and Kevin Barjenbruch WSFO Salt Lake City

Miles away and unknown to them, a thunderstorm had just produced 1.3 inches of rain in an hour over the rocky, steep terrain of Grand Staircase- Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, sending a deluge of water down the Cottonwood Wash. The students received a radio communication from a Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument ranger informing them that the National Weather Service (NWS) Salt Lake City Forecast Office had issued a flash flood warning for that area and they should turn around. Fortunately for them they took the advice and turned around.

Figure 2.
The washout, Cottonwood Canyon Road
Photo: R Beasley Grand Staircase National Monument

“In April, I presented some flash flood training for the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument rangers,” stated Brian McInerney, Service Hydrologist at WFO Salt Lake City (Figure 1) . “I showed some slides, discussed the NWS flash flood program, provided our web address where they could get more information, talked about the Turn Around Don’t Drown campaign, and discussed what they could do when the NWS issues a flash flood warning.”

As it turns out, the flash flood warning was right on target. The flash flood washed out a 4 foot diameter metal culvert and trenched out a 6 foot deep escarpment through the very road the students were traveling that afternoon (Figures 2 and 3).

Picture 3
. Cottonwood Canyon Road
Photo: R. Beasley Grand Staircase National Monument

It’s probable that the vehicle would not have stopped in time on the winding road to see the flash flood or the carved out road bed had they not received the message to turn around.

“Thanks to the Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service’s (AHPS) Flash Flood Monitoring and Prediction (FFMP), our flash flood program has improved substantially over the last 10 years,” stated McInerney. “Whereas before we issued a flash flood warning for a generic part of a county, today we issue flash flood warnings for specific river basins and canyons.”

Considering nearly half of all flood related deaths are due to vehicles attempting to cross flowing water, the students did the right thing by turning around. Turn Around Don’t Drown is a national campaign designed to warn motorists not to drive through flowing water.

This success story is due to Brian’s aggressive outreach efforts. He routinely visits all of Utah’s National Parks each year and has developed a good working relationship with the park rangers. In return, the NWS receives realtime data and sometimes photographs and movies of weather events. It’s a win-win for everyone.

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