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200 SUU students displaced from flooding; Iron County declares emergency

Posted at 8:20 PM, Jul 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-29 17:52:54-04

CEDAR CITY, Utah — Hundreds of people are displaced and homes heavily damaged from Monday's flash floods in Cedar City and nearby communities. The devastation is so widespread that Iron County Commissioner Mike Bleak announced Tuesday that they've declared a county-wide emergency.

This comes after Cedar City Mayor Maile Wilson-Edwards issued a disaster declaration Monday evening. During a press conference Tuesday, Wilson-Edwards said with two inches of rain in an hour, the city reached the 500-year flood capacity.

Businesses, homes, apartments, student housing and Southern Utah University all saw damage, ranging from minor to a total loss.

WATCH: Cleanup underway in Cedar City after flooding causes extensive damage

The county communities affected include Cedar City, Enoch, Paragonah, Parowan, Summit and Kanarraville.

"Once the rains hit, it became immediately evident that we were going to experience flooding and it happened almost immediately," Bleak said. "I was able to reach out to the Red Cross, I was able to coordinate with Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints yesterday, to provide a place for our emergency Red Cross shelter."

In addition to the Red Cross and LDS Church, hundreds of community members quickly jumped into action to help.

Tuesday morning, an entire crew from Schmidt Construction arrived at the University West Apartments with heavy equipment to clear out mud and debris. SUU students live at the apartment complex.

The Southern Utah University football team also showed up, using strength in numbers to pick up damaged furniture and ruined belongings to load into dumpsters.

The basement apartments at the complex got hit the hardest by the flash floods.

"It just happened so fast," resident Kara Ellison said.

"So fast," echoed Courtney Morley.

They each described how, out of nowhere, the water began to seep into Ellison's basement apartment.

The two tried to use towels to soak up the water at first, but it soon became clear that wasn't enough.

"I was holding down the door, and all of a sudden not even like 10 seconds later it took me down, and then I went underwater," Morley recounted. "I came back up and then I was like, 'We need to get out of here!' So I just picked her up honestly, then I'm like, 'We're going,' and we swam out."

Ellison was standing on a table, holding onto a ledge before Morley helped her swim out. The two said they saw other people crawling out of their windows to escape.

A huge line of mud across the basement walls about 6 feet off the ground shows how high the waters rose.

PHOTOS/VIDEOS: Rain causes flooding on Cedar City streets, in residences

While Morley was just visiting, Ellison and her roommate now don't have a place to live. Morley's car became submerged in the water and has been totaled.

They're glad they made it out alive, as did everyone else in that building.

Southern Utah University President Mindy Benson explained that the university is helping students impacted by the floods.

While campus itself saw damage to the football stadium, turf field, student center and Ashcroft Observatory, President Benson said it pales in comparison to what their residents and students lost.

"We have about 200 students who have been displaced," Benson explained. "We are putting them in our university housing for the next 30 days, short term, until their apartments are available again or until we can find them housing."

In addition to SUU, the Red Cross is helping those who lost everything they own, and now don't have a place to live.

At the YSA Stake Center Tuesday, people brought in donations and others walked in to ask for resources.

One University West Apartment resident explained to volunteer John Rose that she lived in one of the basement units.

"Did you get a place to stay?" he asked her.

"Yeah, I'm staying with a friend right now," she replied.

"You're a student? So, the university has housing if you want to stay in the dorms," Rose said.

He then offered for the student to walk around the gymnasium and take whatever she needed from the tables upon tables of donations.

"We know that some of the apartments were completely underwater, some of the homes and basements have been filled. We know that people have lost things, their perishables are gone and stuff," Rose said. "So we've got food, we've got toothbrushes, we've got a towel -- whatever they need to be able to get life back to normal a little bit."

He explained that they've been seeing a steady stream of people bringing in mountains of items.

It's a different kind of flood to hit town.

"People have brought blankets, and piles of clothes, and towels, and toiletries, and food, and water... just anything you can think of," he explained.

While the Red Cross is usually focused on providing shelter and addressing housing needs, as well as handing out hygiene kits, Rose explained how thanks to the community they were also able to serve as a donation site.

As people helped at the Red Cross shelter, others offered to clean up the many home basements that flooded around town.

Hundreds gathered in the neighborhood off Cross Hollow Road, where the flash floods filled 9-foot-tall basements from floor to ceiling.

David Westwood said his 10-year-old daughter was in the shower in the basement when she heard a noise and got out to see what it was.

It turned out to be the basement windows, buckling under the pressure of the mud and debris. She ran up the stairs to safety.

Video shows flash floods taking out entire yards and cinder block walls that were several feet tall. The streets in the area turned into rivers.

Westwood, his two brothers and their families all live with a few houses of each other. They were all hit, with their basements a total mess.

By Tuesday afternoon, volunteers were able to gut Westwood's basement down to the studs.

The floods may have left their houses damaged and their belongings ruined, but Westwood indicated that it couldn't destroy the spirit of the town.

He said everyone rallied around them, staying until 2 am Monday and picking back up early Tuesday.

He said it was unbelievable to see how many people came out and helped.

Relatives started a GoFundMe for three three brothers, to help them repair their homes. Westwood's three children all had their bedrooms in the basement.

The outreach has meant so much to Westwood and his wife, and their children.

"To see them have all these people come back and help put us back together where they can feel safe again and live-- I think it means the world," Westwood expressed.

As cleanup continues in Cedar City, Commissioner Bleak said they are expecting more active weather later this week and weekend. He said they received 20,000 sandbags and their goal is to have them all filled and available to residents for free.

Iron County and Cedar City are asking for volunteers to fill sandbags, and the Red Cross is asking for volunteers to staff the shelter at 61 N 900 W, which George Colson with Iron County Emergency Management said will be open through Friday.