Mud, Rocks, Water Make Holiday Traffic A Nightmare

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Highway 87 was shut down completely for four hours on Saturday morning due to flooding and mudslides following some heavy rain south of Payson.

"We had quite a bit of rain between the area of State Route 188 and the Saguaro Lake turnoff," Department of Public Safety Officer Frank Valenzuela said. "In between those two areas, we had quite a few mud slides and rock slides."

The area scorched by the Willow Fire is much more vulnerable to mud slides and erosion. Rainwater once soaked in by the soil and vegetation, now runs off the hill, moving debris with it, Valenzuela said.

Tonto Basin Fire Chief Steven Holt said rain over the burn area flooded a portion of Jake's Corner and swept debris across Highway 188.

"I would guess about six to eight inches of water went over the road," Holt said. "We had to clean debris out of the highway (188) to keep traffic going."

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Jake's Corner resident Shannon Marshall said Saturday's flooding was worse than the last flood two weeks ago."We have no yard anymore. It washed away," Marshall said. "We had about four inches of rain." Flood waters overturned a propane tank, pushed a trailer 50 feet and washed debris across Highway 188.

According to Valenzuela, debris on the roadway caused eight non-injury accidents.

"The roads were very slick because of the mud and standing water," he said. "Where they didn't have mud and rocks, they had a considerable amount of standing water and runoff."

Valenzuela said the situation was made worse by the fact that it took Arizona Department of Transportation quite awhile to get to the area and then their signs alerting northbound traffic were malfunctioning.

The northbound lanes of Highway 87 reopened at 11:30 a.m., but DPS continued to escort drivers going southbound through the area.

"There was still a lot of mud on the highway and we didn't want people to exceed a safe speed," Valenzuela said. "The Payson Police Department saved our neck by helping us with southbound traffic. They were stopping people south of town and turning them around. They were a tremendous help to us."

The closed highway further aggravated traffic congestion through Payson as holiday travelers made their way north. It was bumper to bumper traffic through town throughout Saturday and Monday.

DPS Sgt. John Whetten said the holiday weekend is just of taste of what's to come.

"Unbelievable this time," Whetten said, "and it's only going to get worse."

Whetten said on Friday night, traffic was backed up within one mile south of Rye and on Saturday the back-up extended six miles from Payson and lasted until 2 p.m.

"(Monday) traffic was backed-up all the way to the east side of Christopher Creek," Whetten said. "And people say we don't need a bypass."

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