Sunday, January 11, 2009

Another Las Vegas Advisor question

I answered another storm drain-related question for the Las Vegas Advisor, the newsletter put out by Huntington Press (which published Beneath the Neon). The question was, “The Las Vegas Valley is prone to flash floods. Have there been instances where transients were washed out of or drowned in the elaborate storm-drain system?”

Here’s my answer:

Located in the heart of the Mojave Desert, Las Vegas averages only about 4.5 inches of rain a year – but it seems to all fall at once. Indeed, the resort city has a long and ugly history of flooding. In July 1905, two months after Las Vegas was founded, a thunderstorm soaked the dirt roads and wooden storefronts and sprawling ranches. (Minimal damage was done, as there was little developed property around at the time.) A series of floods swamped stores and homes, shorted out phone and power lines and shut down roads and railroads in the summer of 1955. And a July 1975 flood swept hundreds of cars from the parking lot of Caesars Palace, closed down a section of the Strip and claimed at least two lives.

The city’s most destructive modern-day flood occurred in July 1999, when three inches of rain fell in 90 minutes. The Las Vegas and Clark County fire departments performed more than 200 swift-water rescues and the water caused about $20 million in property damage. A week after the flood, President Clinton declared the county a disaster area.

Since 1982, more than 20 people have died in flash floods in Las Vegas. A handful of them lived in the city’s underground flood channels, or “storm drains,” which now span more than 300 miles and are home to hundreds of people.

It usually happens like this: A homeless man is drunk, high or asleep in a storm drain. Thunderclouds creep over the mountains and dump more than a half-inch of rain. A wall of water ambushes the man. If he’s lucky, he grabs his valued possessions – a duffel bag, clothes, his wallet – and fights his way out of the drain or finds refuge in a manhole shaft. If he’s unlucky, he’s swept away and drowns. Randy John Northrup was unlucky. A few days after a November 2002 rainstorm, his body was discovered half-buried in the Las Vegas Wash. He was 47 years old.

Most people I’ve met in the drains have a flood-survival story. On a cold and rainy Christmas morning, Jim got washed under the Orleans hotel-casino on his mattress. Firefighters rescued Mike hundreds of feet into a four-tunnel drain … just before he was swept under New York-New York and the MGM Grand. During the July 1999 flood, Ernie was trapped in a lateral pipe under I-15 for three days without food or drinking water.

“I’ve been lucky,” Ernie told me. “I’ve been real lucky. I’ve been through three of the big ones [floods] in here. I’ve been trapped in here for days when the rain got too rowdy. I’ll tell you what, Matt. I’ve seen God. Me and God have had some long talks, buddy.”

The lucky ones live to share their stories on the street. The unlucky ones are mentioned in news briefs buried deep in the morning paper, lowered into unmarked graves in downtown cemeteries and unknown to the millions of tourists who visit the Green Felt Jungle each year.