MESQUITE -- Three city blocks were evacuated and about 30 homes surrounded by muddy water Tuesday evening as the Virgin River surged out of its channel to threaten this city 85 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
Emergency personnel began going door to door in the afternoon to urge residents of 100 homes on the city's east side to clear out as the rain-swollen river continued to rise.
The sense of danger was intensified by reports of a dam close to failure upriver in Utah, but those fears subsided after engineers declared the structure sound.
Now city officials are hoping for a break in the weather, which has dumped as much as 4 inches of rain since Friday in some usually arid areas along the Virgin and its tributaries.
"Right now we're experiencing floodwaters and evacuating residents between Mesquite Boulevard and Old Mill Road from Cottonwood Drive to Gene Drive," city emergency services spokesman Len DeJoria said.
As much as 3½ feet of water has pooled at the lower ends of some streets closest to the river, said city spokesman Bryan Dangerfield.
The 30 homes impacted so far are surrounded by standing water that has backed around a failed levy, Dangerfield said.
"At least they're not going down the river right now," he said.
Others were not so lucky.
In Beaver Dam, Ariz., 10 miles upstream near Littlefield, several homes in a golf community for seniors were destroyed by the flooding Beaver Dam Wash, which empties into the Virgin.
One house toppled into the wash and floated downstream about 200 yards, where it crashed into some trees, spun away and sank in the churning flow.
Virgin Valley High School in Mesquite has been turned into a Red Cross shelter for flood victims. As of 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, 63-year-old Chuck Embree was the only person staying there.
"I had the Fire Department come to my house and say, 'You've got to go,'" he said.
By the time he left, the water was four feet deep and threatening his home on Cottonwood Drive, he said. He took his pets to a shelter and then sheltered himself with the Red Cross.
"I've been in a lot of bad weather, but this is a whole different experience," he said. "To be caught in something like this -- this is bad."
Officials in Clark County, Arizona and Utah have declared a state of emergency for areas along the river and its tributaries.
Mesquite city crews began working along the river banks at 6 a.m. Tuesday, aided by dozens of volunteers who spent the day filling and distributing sand bags. The river reached its crest Tuesday morning, but a second surge hit early Tuesday afternoon, breaching some hastily built levies.
The river ebbed somewhat Tuesday evening, but forecasters were predicting another surge of water in the early morning hours today , Dangerfield said.
"The fight's not over, that's for sure,'' Dangerfield said.
As of 10 p.m. the water level along the Virgin River in Mesquite had dropped between one and two feet, giving officials a respite before the waters rise again. Another powerful storm system will dump rain in the area around 10:30 a.m. today , officials said. The river is expected to rise, although officials hope that man-made berms and sandbagging efforts will protect homes in low-lying areas. The river is well above where it normally is. "You look at the river most of the year and you can roll your pants up and walk across it," Dangerfield said.
Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins, who lives in Logandale, said the massive volume of water flowing down the Virgin River is nearly equal to the flood that sent Mesquite residents scrambling to higher ground in 2005.
"There's going to be a lot of debris coming down the river from that gorge area," Collins said, referring to the Virgin River Gorge in Arizona between Mesquite and St. George, Utah.
That has residents nervous.
"I'm scared," said Glenna Cook as she watched neighbors and high schoolers fill sandbags near her home on Mimosa Way, near East Mesquite Boulevard. Just down the street, the river had topped a bridge and had flooded single-story stucco homes along Sage Way.
Authorities had advised her to evacuate, and she was going to comply and stay with a friend after boarding her pets. The 53-year-old remembers friends five years ago who opened their front doors to see water gushing toward them.
"It was horrid," she said.
Around the block from Chuck Embree's abandoned home on Cottonwood Drive, Shirley and Larry Smith watched the sandbags pile up and the water rise on Tuesday, to the point where their home appeared to be the last one occupied on Sage Way. The couple planned to stay the night in an RV behind their home.
"At our age, to have to start over again ..." said Shirley Smith, 76, shaking her head.
"I guess we'll get through it," said Larry, 85.
The couple woke Tuesday to see workers building a dike along the river in view of their house.
"That dike, it didn't last as long as it took to build it," Larry Smith said.
Shirley Smith has lived in Mesquite since 1995, but the couple was away during the 2005 flood.
Their neighbors' homes flooded then, but the Smiths' house survived untouched. She said she was the only one on the street who had flood insurance.
"This time I don't have flood insurance," she said as the waters lapped against the sandbags around her home.
Neighbors on higher ground stood and watched the water roar past, grateful their homes appeared to be safe.
J. Haase, 65, said he bought his home soon after the 2005 flood struck -- soon enough that he remembers seeing homes in the neighborhood with visible water marks.
He was warned before buying that his home was on a flood plain, but he was willing to accept the risk.
"It's the cost of doing business, living in this area," Haase said.
He said the efforts to contain floodwaters since 2005 can't protect homeowners from everything.
"Every hundred years there's going to be a big flood," he said.
"Or every five years," neighbor Val Campbell added.
Other Mesquite residents watched the waters rise under a bridge on Riverside Road. Upstream, bulldozers could be seen moving dirt along the bank.
John Tollackson, whose home was safe from the waters of 2005, came to get a picture.
"I think it looks about the same," he said of the river level.
The situation looked especially dire early Tuesday afternoon, when the National Weather Service warned of the "imminent" and "very dangerous" failure of the Trees Ranch Dam, on the east fork of Virgin just south of Zion National Park.
The warning prompted the evacuation of Rockville and Virgin, small towns immediately down river.
Fears of a collapse were quelled Tuesday night after two dam experts inspected the earthen structure and reported to authorities there that its integrity was intact.
Utah's Washington County Emergency Operations Center communicated the good news to Mesquite Fire and Rescue personnel shortly before 7 p.m.
"All of the drains and monitoring indicate the dam is sound and not leaking," DeJoria said. "The water flowing through it is clear and not leaking."
Zion National Park remains closed. Park officials evacuated an unspecified number of people, including guests staying at the Zion Lodge and campers in the park.
"We're not sure when it will open again," Ron Terry, a park spokesman, told The Spectrum of St. George.
The Washington County sheriff's office said flooding wiped out one of two bridges to the southern Utah town of Gunlock. About a half-dozen roads in the county, including state Route 9 in Zion National Park, have been closed.
The flooding also caused a sewage plant overflow, and the sheriff's office warned of fecal matter in the water.
The last major flood on the Virgin River in Nevada began Jan. 10, 2005, when the city was still recovering from a smaller flood two weeks earlier.
About 200 homes were evacuated in January 2005 but many avoided severe damage because citizen volunteers were able to place 10,000 sandbags in 15 hours. Nevertheless, former Gov. Kenny Guinn declared Mesquite a disaster area, with private property damage initially estimated at more than $15 million in the city.
Days later the damage estimate was increased to $20 million as damage was confirmed to 75 homes, including 10 with severe damage and three that were left uninhabitable.
Flood problems persisted in the area as heavy rains and melting snow led to flooding not only in Mesquite but on a couple washes and the Muddy River in rural communities around Overton and north to Caliente.
Scores of homes were damaged, hundreds of cows were stranded, roadways and railroad tracks were washed away, and riverbeds were littered with debris.
Memories of past Virgin River flooding remain fresh in Littlefield. Tuesday night, men in backhoes worked frantically in the moonlight to save the small Arizona town from the latest rush of water just feet from their homes. Using their own equipment, they hauled dirt to try to reinforce the river bank. Duane Magoon, a nearby Bunkerville resident whose brother lives in Littlefield, pointed at a man operating a backhoe as the machine shoveled a load of soft sand. A boy was in the vehicle next to him. "That guy right there, nobody asked him to come. He just came down and started helping," Magoon said. "That's what Christmas is all about."
Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Keith Rogers and staff photographer Justin Yurkanin contributed to this report, which included information from The Associated Press and correspondent Dave Hawkin in Kingman, Ariz.