Gila Bend residents reeling from deadly flash flooding; Gov. Ducey surveys damage

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Aug. 20 toured Gila Bend, a small community where recent flooding inundated homes and led to two deaths, part of a trail of destruction in the state unleashed by a fierce monsoon season.

The governor praised the resiliency of the people of Gila Bend, 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of Phoenix, and other hard-hit areas.

Related: At least 2 dead, 30 rescued after severe flooding in Gila Bend; state of emergency declared

"My prayers go out to all the Arizonans in Gila Bend, Flagstaff and all other areas of our state being impacted by flash flooding and heavy rain," said Governor Ducey during a news conference. "We knew early on that there would be challenges that come from this monsoon season, but as I look around me, it’s tough to comprehend just how devastating it’s been. 

"I want all the residents of Gila Bend to know that we are with you, and we are going to overcome this," Ducey said. "We will do everything we can to protect you and help you recover."

Two additional deaths were reported this week, and several people were rescued, after a torrential downpour sent rainwater and debris rushing through a wash near Scottsdale.

Flooding has occurred across the state this summer, with heavy damage in the northern Arizona city of Flagstaff, the mining communities of Miami and Globe, and the desert areas surrounding Tucson and Phoenix.

Wildfires that denuded mountain areas outside Flagstaff in recent years and near Globe this year made runoff much worse.

The 2021 monsoon season follows near record-low summer rainfall across the Southwest in 2020.

Ducey previously declared a state of emergency in Gila Bend, and on Friday honored the local fire chief, who stayed on the job all weekend even though her own home was flooded. He called her an "inspirational leader."

"Right now, Gila Bend has 28 firefighters — all volunteers — who are helping this community recover," Ducey said. "The Gila Bend fire crew’s perseverance and altruism are exemplified by their fire chief, Arelia Henry."

The governor announced a Back to Work Small Business Rehiring and Retention Program on Friday that would allocate $5 million to help small businesses in the state affected by wildfires and flooding.

Flooding inundated area, resulted in deaths

The flooding, which happened during the overnight hours of Aug. 13, took place after strong monsoon storms swept through the region.

The city had nearly 1.5 inches (4 centimeters) of rain in 24 hours, but a nearby site along a state highway that was closed because of flooding measured 3.9 inches (10 centimeters) in the same period, according to the Maricopa County Flood Control District’s website. Governor Doug Ducey has declared a state of emergency for the area.

Two people were killed as a result of the flash flooding in Gila Bend, and one of them was identified by officials with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office as Jesus Perez. Perez's family said the man was trying to rescue a stranger's life when he was killed.

"That's when a big tidal wave of water came hard, and it flipped the car over with my dad in it before he could get out, and obviously, it took him," said Perez's daughter, Amstry Perez. "Him being a hero wasn't a one-time thing. It's something he would have done for anyone."

Related: Family of man who died during Gila Bend flooding speaks out

Residents recount devastation

"There was over a foot of mud and water, so right now, the only thing we can do is rip everything out and let it dry out," said Louie Pena.

Pena was sifting through his belongings in the home he grew up in, trying to see what is salvageable at this point.

"Everything we had in the house completely is demolished, cabinets and everything," said Pena.

Down the block from Pena, Eli Mendoza was cleaning up his family home. Since the flooding, Mendoza has been travelling from Buckeye to Gila Bend everyday.

"We gutted the whole house," said Mendoza. "We cut the sheetrock past the water level, and kind of treated it so it doesn’t get mold. Every time you turn around, there is something else that has to be done," said Mendoza.

In some areas, floodwaters reached several feet tall, covering everything in mud.

"All my furniture is destroyed, along with my appliances small and big appliances. The word hurts me the most is the memories, pictures and stuff like that," said Gila Bend Fire Chief Arelia Henry.

During the flash flooding, dozens of 911 calls lit up the switchboard, and some residents took refuge on rooftops, screaming for

Crews had a tough time getting to residents in need of rescue due to a train that was blocking the path. The town's folunteer firefighters had to improvise.

"We were in three feet of water, and as we continued, we were neck deep in water," said Gila Bend Fire Captain Fred Burkhardt.

In all, 140 homes and dozens of businesses were damaged or destroyed.

Mayor held emergency council meeting

On Aug. 19, Gila Bend Mayor Chris Riggs held an emergency council meeting to talk about what the community has endured in the past week.

"Our fire department waded through water that had electric currents running through to save people. That is outstanding courage," said Mayor Riggs.

Mayor Riggs said it is going to take months to rebuild, in addition to working with flood control and looking what they can do to make sure a flood event doesn't happen again.

During the meeting, Mayor Riggs spoke about Perez, as well as the other victim, Blanca Ruiz. Ruiz worked at the Gila Bend Unified School District for over 20 years, and Mayor Riggs was emotion when talking about what Ruiz meant to the community.

"She was the type of individual that always that always put the spark in the room, that made people smile. The ones that are going to miss her the most are the kids, especially the younger kids who are not going to see that energy," said Mayor Riggs.

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