Stranded In Rim Country

Locals make best of living along flooded waterways

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When Ron Ethington took off for work in his white van before dawn Thursday morning, he rolled across the culvert that connects Highway 87 to East Verde Estates Road without delay.

Four hours later, Ethington, an ambulatory transportation driver, returned from taking a dialysis patient to the Valley for treatment, and found bright orange and white-striped traffic barriers blocking the road, and yellow warning tape marking off the culvert's entrance.

Ethington shrugged off the flooded crossing -- being marooned by high water is just part of living in East Verde Estates.

"I live right on the East Verde ... with the elk, the deer and the javelina. This is why we moved up here," Ethington said. "This doesn't happen very often. I think it's kind of neat when it does."

The swollen East Verde River, a murky current the color of milk chocolate carrying white tufts churned into foam by the seething river, rushes over the East Verde crossing.

As the deluge races down the slant of the barrier, a muddy wave curls along the length of the culvert where the concrete meets the soft river bottom.

The sound of the eddies and the water surging over the spindly trees growing out of the riverbed drown the sounds of traffic from the highway.

When the river is like this, residents of East Verde Estates respect the water's power.

"There's no way I'd cross it," Mary Cambier said. "There's also debris to worry about."

Residents know they could be stranded on either bank until the river recedes.

"The last two times the river flooded, we got stuck on the other side and had to stay in a hotel," Ethington said. "When you move here, you know the river can flood, but that's the thing that you accept for being able to live in an area like this."

Down south

The residents of Tonto Basin shared a similar fate. Thursday, Tonto Creek rose quickly. Shortly after 2 p.m. the Gila County Sheriff's Office and the county roads department stopped traffic through the rising waters.

"Nobody's crossing the creek at this point," said owner of the Butcher Hook Bar, Norma Cline, speaking over the din of a happy-hour crowd.

Cline said for many of her customers and employees, the flooding doesn't pose much of an inconvenience. Residents who live on the east side of Tonto Creek, she said, know what to expect and the community bands together to help others.

"Everybody gets motel rooms or puts campers in the RV parks," she said. "A lot of my employees live across the creek and they just pack up and move over so they can keep working."

Some places, Cline said, even offer reduced rates for stranded residents.

"The motels put up as many people as they can. Everybody helps out," she said.

Banding together

Back in East Verde Estates, residents look forward to the flood. Cambier remembered throwing tailgate parties years ago when the waters rose.

These days, the amateur radio operators, Cambier and her husband, Jim, a Civil Air Patrol commander, cherish the time the isolation gives them out of their busy schedules to spend with each other and their community.

"We kind of all stick together. If somebody needs cigarettes, somebody else will have them," Cambier said. "It's kind of nice when we get flooded in. We get to visit with our neighbors."

Cambier said this is the fourth time since Christmas they have been stranded. Early in January they couldn't cross the river for two days. Cambier recalled being stuck for as many as five days in the late 1980s.

Cambier isn't fazed by the flooding, knowing that if anything goes awry, she can call for help on her ham radio like she did six years ago when a girl fell into the East Verde's turbulent waters.

"We've lived here for 18 years and I always say if you have potatoes, coffee and rice, you could live a long time. It's just a matter of being a little prepared," she said.

Rod Byers of the Tonto National Forest ranger district said damage caused by the storm over the past three days is minimal.

He advised recreational motorists to avoid all unpaved roads during rainy weather because they are extraordinarily muddy, and getting stuck is a distinct possibility.

To date, flooding from strong winter storms is responsible for two deaths and much property damage. The National Weather Service predicts more rain and snow through Sunday.

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