Although the sky was cloudy and gray, Tonto Basin volunteers and homeowners were all smiles Monday — it was supply delivery day.
Three days a week for the past three weeks, a Gila County Emergency Management team have literally trucked badly needed food, mail and medications to the 400 residents who live on the east side of Tonto Creek.
With the creek still raging after a storm dumped several feet of water in the area and left some homes destroyed, “Do Not Enter” signs remain firmly posted at all three crossings of the creek, making it nearly impossible for residents without four-wheel drive to gather supplies.
Through a community effort with local volunteers, the Kiwanis Club, Gila County and residents, supplies are handed out and no one is left hungry or without.
On Monday, the Roundup rode with the Gila County team as they loaded up a former military troop transporter, i.e., the GI, with supplies for residents. First stop, the Tonto Basin Marketplace where residents call in supply orders and Gila County employees Betty Vanta and Leana Asberry pick them up. On today’s stop, there are few items to collect because more residents are daring to cross the creek since it subsided from its maximum flow of 80,000 cubic feet per second at the height of the storm, said Matt Bollinger, division director of Gila County Emergency Management.
While some residents are able to fend for themselves, others still rely heavily on the supplies. Second stop on our tour is the post office, where two yellow waterproof bags are stuffed full with mail and W-2s. The final stop is the local food bank run by the local Kiwanis Club. Here volunteers load dozens of boxes of fresh produce and food, which will be handed to residents on the other side of the creek.
Once loaded with supplies, the open-top GI takes off down Highway 88 at a blistering pace for an engine built in the 1960s.
With their hair waving wildly down the highway toward the Bar X crossing, Asberry and Vanta shouted that this is nothing compared to a few weeks ago when sleeting rain made the drive miserable.
“Just another day in the office,” Asberry shouted.
Once off the highway, driver Lonnie Cline, load supervisor with the county, heads the massive 2.5-ton truck down a dirt road until we hit a slushy, muddy creek where the water is still raging. Once erect fences stand lopsided on the side of the creek, covered with leaves and silt. Several residents stand on the other side watching our approach, ready with trucks to pull us out if we get stuck.
Without blinking an eye, Cline heads the truck through the creek. The ride is anything but smooth and Asberry warns of collecting splinters off the rotting boards we are sitting on.
Remarkably, as soon as we have entered the creek we are across in a few minutes, splinter free.
Although the ride is bumpy and cold, the discomfort is well worth the effort when we see the faces of the residents waiting for the supplies at the Tonto Basin firehouse, which has been set up as a temporary distribution point.
Brenda Straw, east side resident and chair of the Tonto Basin Fire Department volunteers, says Bollinger and the other county workers “have done marvelous things for us.” Several years ago, residents had to fend for themselves without the county’s assistance.
The majority of residents on the east side that are elderly or low income “depend on this food,” she says.
Jeannine Cheek, public information officer with the fire department and five-year permanent resident of the east side, said because this year’s storm was the worst, the supplies are needed more than ever.
David Gower, a 14-year resident, agreed.
Although water did not enter his half site-built, half trailer home, it did reach the subflooring and washed away his yard.
Until the water dries, Gower says he will not know how much damage the floodwaters caused.
Worse case scenario, mold forms and he has to replace the subflooring. Best case, he replaces the skirting.
On top of mold, Gower is worried about his septic system, which was badly flooded and now handles only two flushes a day.
Until he figures out how to fix his leech field, Gower and his wife plan to stay in a friend’s doublewide home, which was untouched by the storm.
While he cannot live in his home, Gower and his wife have begun the arduous process of straitening out their yard. Gower said it would take him months to remove the silt that washed onto everything. Next door, Gower’s neighbor carries nearly every piece of furniture from her home into the front yard. Her home was harder hit by the floodwaters.
Gower said he is frustrated because the flood could have been prevented if the county had dredged the creek and not allowed it to overflow its banks year after year.
“We kind of feel like forgotten souls,” he said.
Because the Tonto Creek area is designated as a critical habitat for wildlife, residents are not allowed to change or erect berms to control the flow of the creek. Therefore, residents say the creek has expanded through the years, cutting its own path through the Tonto Basin and often taking out residents’ property.
Richard Hasl, a 35-year resident, said 30 years ago the creek was not nearly as wide as it is today and the current flooding is a result of poor creek maintenance.
Resident Judy Morrison said the area badly needs a dike for improved flood channel.
Straw agreed, adding the area badly needs a bridge for residents to get across and regular creek maintenance.
“We need management of the creek, but they won’t let us manage it and no one else is managing it,” she said. “We are in a catch-22.”
While there is no talk to dredge the creek, the county is seriously considering building a 1,700-foot-long bridge that could cost around $25 million.
The federal government has already put up $2.5 million to conduct a detailed engineering and environmental study of four proposed bridge sites.
It will take 18 months to complete the study and come up with cost estimates. Until then, residents will have to rely on the GI for supplies every time the creek floods.
With the nearly yearly flooding, Morrison said she sometimes thinks of leaving the area, but wonders who would buy her home.
“What is our property worth now?” she said.
She chooses to stay she explained because of the tight-knit community.
When someone needs something, the community gathers and supplies it, she said. Keith Godbold said anytime he fixes his truck, within half an hour three people have come over to help.
“We live here because of this community,” Morrison said.
Cheek added the scenery also makes up for the frustration of flooding.
“Nine times out of the year, it is like living in heaven,” she said.
A temporary school was established at school board member Pat Taylor’s home with several laptops collected by Bollinger. There are 18 school-age children living on the east side of the creek and school officials worried students would fall behind on schoolwork. Luckily, no children have had to use the school because resident George Allen Ewing has volunteered to drive students across on his own GI.
“It was set up as a precaution,” Taylor said.