Tonto Search And Rescue Aids Wenden Flood Victims


David Beckstead arrived in Wenden, Ariz. early Friday morning five days after a wall of water had stormed down the normally dry Centennial Wash and washed into the town from a valley above.

That torrent had overturned mobile homes, submerged automobiles, and "sunk about half the town under three or four feet of water," Beckstead said.

"But it wasn't over. They were expecting more."

A three-year volunteer for the Tonto Search and Rescue team, as well as a freelance photographer, Beckstead spent Friday and Saturday in the waterlogged town after receiving an emergency call late Thursday night.

Search and rescue teams from several states had converged on Wenden, about 90 miles west of Phoenix, but they still needed as many team members as they could get to search for bodies and help with recovery, he said.

He promptly made the six-hour drive with fellow Tonto team members Anita Adams and Scott Reger, arriving in Wenden at 6 a.m. Friday morning.

"As soon as we got there, it started raining really hard, with lightning and everything. Another large flood was coming and they needed help with getting people out of the houses, because a lot of them had moved back in even when their places were pretty destroyed or pretty wet. We spent that morning in the rain, pulling them out."

Many of those people were taken to a high school gym in nearby Salome, while others found shelter with friends and relatives.

As Beckstead began helping to evacuate residents in peril, he said, it was raining only lightly, but "it continued to rain very heavily up the valley, which was about 20 or 30 miles above Wenden."

Beckstead accompanied other Search and Rescue professionals in a Blackhawk helicopter to assess how much water had been falling from the rain they had been watching all day up in the valley. High up, they spotted "a lot of water, tons of water, breaking levees, big rapids, the whole desert was flooded, and all of that water was starting to come down. It was flooding small communities and individual houses in its path. We knew it was going to hit Wenden ... but they didn't know if it was going to come in an eight-foot wall, or just come up fast, two or three feet at a time."

By the next morning, the water had arrived about four hours later than expected. Wenden was flooded anew, but this time the floodwater had taken a different route.

"It started going into the west side of town, which it had not touched before. The water became a river and it rose very quickly at about 24,000 cubic feet per second," Beckstead estimated.

Waters in Centennial Wash, which created much of the flooding, had risen as high as 6 feet, the Arizona Republic reported. On Friday, 300 people voluntarily left their homes and by Saturday, Wenden's entire population 1,200 people was evacuated for a brief period.

Eventually, Beckstead was sent to join four out-of-state dog teams which had been dispatched to sniff out possible casualties in cotton fields and debris-strewn banks.

"But they didn't find anything," he said, "because whoever might have been out there would have been washed out into the center (of the newly-formed river). If they're there, it's going to take a long time to find them."

So far, the official death toll is one searchers found a man's body late last week but Beckstead would not be surprised to see it rise.

"They don't know how many people were living in the salt cedar drainage," he said. "There were a lot of people living in makeshift shelters in the drainage, and the water hit them at 3 o'clock in the morning, a week before we got there.

"They cannot get an accurate count of how many people got out or who's missing. There's no telling."

Authorities have since suspended the search for victims, and have retracted a weekend announcement that there were still two people missing. Wenden law enforcement officials have said, however, that one man remains missing.

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