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At least 16 people killed in US flash floods

Published 16/09/2015

People walk pass damaged vehicles swept away during a flash flood in Hildale (AP)
People walk pass damaged vehicles swept away during a flash flood in Hildale (AP)

At least 16 people were killed after heavy rains caused flash flooding in the western United States, with several others still missing.

Four people died and three were still missing at Zion National Park in southern Utah after the flash floods coursed through a narrow slot canyon.

And search-and-rescue teams in Hildale on the Utah-Arizona border trudged through muddy streambeds looking for a person still missing after a devastating flash flood that killed at least 12 people.

The deaths came when fast-moving floodwaters on Monday swept away two vehicles in the small town, about 20 miles south of the park.

Three women and 13 children were in the two vehicles that were hit by a wall of water and carried several hundred yards downstream. Three of the children survived.

Park s pokeswoman Holly Baker said a group of four men and three women set out on Monday before officials closed slot canyons that evening due to flood warnings.

She said the bodies of three men and one woman had been found.

The members of the group were from California and Nevada, and they were all in their 40s and 50s.

Rescuers were waiting for water levels to drop before entering the canyon to search for the missing. The group was in Keyhole Canyon, which narrows to just 6 feet across in places.

Ms Baker said the canyon received more than a half-inch of rain in a single hour.

Park rangers advised the group when they picked up their permit on Monday morning that weather conditions were poor, but until canyons are closed they leave it up to visitors to decide whether it is safe.

In Hildale, a secluded community that is the base of Warren Jeffs' polygamous sect, a w itness described rushing to where the vehicles came to a stop and seeing a young boy who survived the flood.

"The little boy was standing there," Yvonne Holm said. "He said, 'Are you guys going to help me?'"

The children in the vehicles ranged from four years old to teenagers.

Residents called it the worst flood in memory for the sister towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, located about 315 miles south of Salt Lake City at the foot of picturesque red rock cliffs.

Lorin Holm said the torrent was so fast, "it was taking concrete pillars and just throwing them down, just moving them like plastic".

The women and children were in an SUV and van on a gravel road north of the towns. They were returning from a park when they stopped at a flooded crossing and got out to watch the raging waters, Hildale Mayor Philip Barlow said.

What they did not know was that a flash flood was brewing in the canyon above, he said. It came rushing down and engulfed their vehicles.

"We're greatly humbled by this, but we realise that this is an act of God, and this is something we can't control," said Mr Barlow, a Jeffs follower. "We have to take what we receive and do the best we can."

The National Weather Service had issued a flood warning about three hours earlier for the area, saying: "Move to higher ground now. Act quickly to protect your life." It is not known if the victims were aware of the warning.

The raging torrents are not uncommon in an area prone to flash floods, but the volume and pace of Monday's rain was a "100-year event," said Brian McInerney, hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City.

T he search effort temporarily eased the tension between Jeffs' followers and others who no longer belong to the sect but still live there.

The split between loyalists who still believe Jeffs is a victim of religious persecution and defectors who are embracing government efforts to pull the town into modern society has sharpened in the four years since Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting under age girls he considered brides.

"We were all coming together for a common cause, without any bad feelings," said Ross Chatwin, who lives in Colorado City.

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