Flagstaff flood victims reflect on August monsoons

The recent monsoon season was one of Flagstaff’s wettest. The region experienced intense thunderstorms and heavy rainfall, which led to devastation for some. 

Coconino County ranked the 2021 monsoon season as the 15th wettest on record. On average there is about 7.7 inches of rainfall this time of year; however, the current season has averaged 10.5 inches of rain over the city of Flagstaff. The amount of rainfall led to downstream neighborhoods suffering immensely from the summer’s flash floods.

Flagstaff resident Joanna Ignace was one of the area’s residents who endured the effects of the rainfall that flooded her home 5-feet deep. Ignace has been a resident since 1974 and currently resides off of Fort Valley Road where she works as a real estate agent. Her home is located in a seasonal runoff zone that overflowed due to the flash flooding on Aug. 17. 

“What I saw that day was a 150-foot, 5-foot-deep river running through the center of my house,” Ignace said. “My washer and dryer were tossed upside down and my refrigerator was tossed out in the middle of the kitchen. It was like someone had taken my house and shaken it in a snowglobe.”

As a result of this event, they were forced to strip down all the drywall and start rebuilding from scratch. Ignace’s home was not within the city flood zone even after the the zoning maps were updated. In turn, they were provided no flood insurance and will have to pay out of pocket for their remodel, Ignace said. However, Ignace and her family were not the only household to experience interior flooding. 

Lucinda Andreani, Coconino County Deputy Manager and Public Works Director said 53 homes within the city’s neighborhoods had water damage, totaling an estimated $1 million. 

“This year alone we have six major rainfall events, of which five of those created significant flooding within the downstream neighborhoods,” Andreani said. “Two of the rainfall events were 100-year while the one on Aug. 17 was between a 200-300 year rainfall event that had the most disastrous effects downstream.”

Andreani said the county and city have gathered a team of 50 engineers and experts for this situation. Together they came up with four key strategies: forest restoration, enhancing alluvial fans for sediment reduction, implementing channel stabilization and upsizing the infrastructure throughout Flagstaff. 

“After the museumfire, we have seen a tremendous amount of sediment, which leads to dramatic erosion channels down these steeper slopes,” Andreani said. “The volume of water for these areas is six-to-10 times greater than pre-fire due to the missing vegetation that can’t absorb the water.”  

The museum fire scar is located within the Dry Lake Hills area just above Flagstaff and is more prone to flooding, on account of the summer 2019 fire. 

Recently, the United States Forest Service (USFS) pledged $3.5 million to Museum Fire watershed restoration, which the county will use to reconstruct the damaged watersheds in the region. This will reduce the level of sediment that is anticipated in future floods.

“Just this summer alone, the city has already removed 10,000 tons of sediment because of these five major flood events,” Andreani said. 

Jeronimo Vasquez, Coconino County district two supervisor, voiced his support for the alliance between the USFS and the Flood Control District. 

“The Forest Service’s partnership is a game-changer on the path to improving the lives of the people within the Museum [Fire] flood area who have been devastated by the severe and repetitive flooding,” Vasquez said.

Moreover, the Flood Control District will work closely with the USFS Flagstaff Ranger District to ensure safety and watershed restoration prior to the next monsoon season. With the work of the district and federal partners these forest restoration projects are being prioritized within critical watersheds across the county. Although there are many projects in place, time is of the essence. 

Andreani added that the timeframe for smaller projects will hopefully be done prior to the next monsoon season, whereas other implementations may take up to two to four years to complete.

Despite the discussion of plans, this past season rained down devastation over the region. Ignace is still far from having her home complete again and is hoping to have some progress by March. The city is adapting to regional flooding and intends to end the destruction of Flagstaff homes in downstream neighborhoods. 

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