HILDALE, Utah — In this community that is closed off to much of the outside world, information flowed slowly Tuesday as authorities recovered bodies that had been dragged away by flash floods.
At least 12 people died Monday after heavy rains sent rivers rushing down mountains. Another four were killed and three went missing when a narrow canyon filled with water in nearby Zion National Park.
Rain continued to fall Tuesday, and both areas were under flash flood warnings into the evening. The 48-hour precipitation count listed Tuesday for Washington County, Utah, was about a quarter of an inch, according to the National Weather Service. At Zion, it was 1.68 inches.
Washes that form dips in streets in Hildale and adjacent Colorado City, Ariz. — about 160 miles northeast of Las Vegas — were full of mud the color of the surrounding red cliffs. It was in one of these ditches that two vehicles carrying 16 women and children washed away.
The 16 passengers were from two local families and were related.
Authorities and volunteers trudged through the muck to find cars ripped apart and bodies miles from where they were caught in the deluge. At least one child was still missing Tuesday.
Most of the nearly 8,000 residents in this single community that crosses state lines are members of Warren Jeffs’ polygamist sect the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or FLDS. Jeffs was sentenced in 2011 to life in prison for sexually assaulting one of his child brides.
The FLDS is not recognized by the Mormon church.
Remnants of the isolation prosecutors said he forced on his followers was evident Tuesday, even amid tragedy. Women wearing bonnets and long dresses watched as rescue workers searched for those lost to the floods. Some took photos with smart phones. Children peered over block walls and fences, gawking at the newcomers.
Most did not speak to journalists who gathered by the dozens. Some parked vehicles to block other cars on public streets.
But one woman, questioning a reporter’s presence in the area near the flooded wash, reluctantly opened up.
“I can’t say much, but they’re gone.” she said of the deceased women and children who she said belonged to her nephew’s household.
Trucks, cars and vans crammed with women and girls circled the street, staring down the woman as she spoke softly.
“I’ve gotta keep going,” she said.” They were very sweet people. It’s just a tragedy.”
Joseph Jessup and his son spoke to media as representatives of the two families, offering a prepared statement: “Now, we have not only lost our home, but have lost our caring companions, and sweet, happy children, who made our home a refuge from the storm.”
Jessup elaborated, saying he lost his home to The United Effort Plan. The “UEP trust,” as Jessup called it, was taken over by the state of Utah in 2005 to control land once owned by Jeffs in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.
He added that his family escaped the raid of a Texas polygamist compound in 2008, when officials took custody of 401 children in Eldorado, Texas, amid allegations of abuse.
“I would not like to take any questions,” he said.
Washington County sheriff’s deputies did not name those who died.
Some 650 volunteers were assisting in the recover effort, according to Hildale Mayor Philip Barlow. National guardsmen were expected to arrive Tuesday night.
“This is our hundred-year flood,” he said.
Hunters reported finding two people previously listed as missing, the sheriff’s office said.
One person hurt in the flooding remains hospitalized at Dixie Regional Medical Center in nearby St. George, Utah.
A wall of water and debris swept through Canyon Street in Hildale about 5 p.m. Monday, the sheriff’s office said.
Crews using heavy equipment worked through the night, searching through the mud and debris at flood crossings and on the banks of Short Creek for those who might still be trapped.
Witness Chris Wyler told CNN that rain and hail walloped Hildale within minutes, then quickly subsided.
“It happened within like a half-hour, 45 minutes,” he said. “(Then) it was just gone. And then the sun was shining again.”
By late Monday night, he said, the water had mostly receded. Nearby residents were trying to organize volunteers on social media to help search for the missing.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said the state is offering “its full resources to the town of Hildale to aid with the search and rescue effort.”