The 1970 Labor Day Flood

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Hazel McBrayer and family photos

The flood of 1970 took place within the monsoon season, but was actually from the outflow of Hurricane Norma. It was a deadly event and destroyed roads, bridges and homes throughout the Rim Country.

There are two weather events that old timers like to talk to historians about. The first is the big snow of 1967; the second is the flood of 1970. This week we focus on the latter, presented with some great pictures from Hazel McBrayer and family.

Labor Day weekend is the symbolic end of summer. It’s one last time to picnic and enjoy the warmer weather. It is also a weekend when people flock from the Valley to the mountains, often to enjoy their second homes. Mix that factor with a storm that provides serious flooding and you almost guaranteed to have tragedy, and that’s exactly what happened in 1970.

A strong tropical storm developed off of the Mexican coast in late August 1970. It was named Tropical Storm Norma, and would prove to be one of Arizona’s deadliest storms ever. It started as a tropical disturbance on Sunday, Aug. 30, becoming a tropical storm the next day. It strengthened over the following couple of days, reaching its peak winds of 60 miles per hour on Thursday, Sept. 3. But while it would weaken into a mere tropical depression by the following day, its outflow was sucked into Arizona, creating disastrous results.

According to report in the Payson Roundup, immediately following the disaster, the storm hit at 11:45 p.m. on Friday night of the holiday weekend. Over the next 24 hours Payson’s weather observer Anna Mae Deming measured 6.7 inches of rain. The storm took its biggest toll in the Christopher Creek/Kohl’s Ranch area, washing out numerous cabins and killing many. Just how many people died because of the storm is debatable. A couple of weeks after the storm the Payson Roundup reported that 17 had died, with one still missing. A National Weather Service site states that 23 died in total from the storm, including 14 on Tonto Creek. Meanwhile, historian Stan Brown has put the number of fatalities at 28 in Rim Country alone. Whatever the case, this was one brutal storm.

The bulk of the damage occurred in the Kohl’s Ranch area, where many cabins located between Tonto and Horton creeks were washed downstream. This area had even heavier rains than Payson. According to the National Weather Service 7.12 inches of rain fell at Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery. Just downstream at Camp Tontozona players got a firsthand look at things as they were happening. According to the Sept. 10, 1970 Payson Roundup, “players saw two automobiles and parts of two cabins from a neighboring area float by.” Two buses were stranded at Camp Tontozona, and thus the players had to thumb rides to return to the Valley.

This area is where the bulk of fatalities occurred. One particular story was told on the front page of the Sept. 10, 1970 Payson Roundup.

“The party had been staying at a cabin north of Kohl’s Ranch owned by the Fuller family. Fearing the building might be washed away, MacDonald had everyone get into their cars.

“Mrs. MacDonald drove the leading auto, MacDonald the second. As they approached the Tonto-Horton bridge over Tonto Creek, Miss Weese said, ‘I saw a huge wall of water coming.’

“‘The water caught him up and the car went over a cliff like a toy,’ Miss Weese said. ‘I saw him clinging to a tree. Then he disappeared.’”

Meanwhile, south of Payson, returning to the Phoenix area was not all that easy. The road was washed out at Sycamore Creek, which resulted in a police fatality there. This also forced people trying to return home to the Valley to go the long way via Roosevelt Lake, or go north of Payson over to I-17.

Overall, at least $200,000 worth of damage was sustained in Rim Country, as numerous bridges had to be fixed following the vicious storm.

As mentioned earlier, anyone who’s been in the area a long time has a story about this storm. The picture provided with this story are from the Kohl’s Ranch area where the McBrayers have had a place since the late 1940s.

The photo was taken after the storm had swept through, when water levels had receded. It shows the fearsome damage that occurred and the unbelievable power of nature.

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