Is Utah at risk for flooding as snowpack melts?

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Jayel Kirby was 15 when her summer youth group volunteered to fill sandbags that would be used to create a river down the streets of Salt Lake City during the infamous flood in 1983.

More importantly for her, though, it was while filling sandbags that she met the man she would go on to marry.

“There were around 80 youth out here, and that’s where we met,” Jayel Kirby said. “I was one of the five girls. I took one look at him and he knocked my socks off.”

When asked if he remembers it the same way, Michael Kirby laughed and said, “Not really.”

“They had a bunch of the youth out here and we came out here every day for about four weeks, and that’s where we met,” he said. “We were sandbagging — doing the same thing right now — and it just kind of stuck.”

The couple spoke with while filling sandbags in the same place where they met 40 years ago, as the state braces for another round of flooding with rising temperatures melting Utah’s record snowpack.

“We saw the advertisement on Facebook asking for volunteers to come and sandbag,” Jayel Kirby said. “We saw the address and I was flipping out, thinking this is gonna be so exciting, we’ve got to redo this. It’s like nostalgia from 40 years ago. And so we’re here.”

While the area surrounding the Midvale Operations Public Works yard has changed in the intervening years, Michael Kirby said the biggest difference is how they feel while doing the work.

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“It goes a little bit slower today,” he said. “I’ll probably need a lot of ibuprofen and rest tomorrow.”

“I’ve got a bad back, so he did most of the work,” Jayel Kirby said.

But 40 years later, the couple has still got it. They filled around 200 sandbags in just under two hours Friday morning, before leaving to babysit their three grandkids, including an 8-month-old.

“That all started 40 years ago, doing this right here,” Michael Kirby said.

“It’s the reason why you need to go out and help people,” Jayel Kirby said. “I mean, you build a community, but you can also meet people and you can start a love story of your own.”

Volunteers assist in filling sandbags in Midvale on Friday, as part of a two-day plan of action preparing for the spring runoff.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

County leaders plan mitigation efforts

The Kirbys were among several dozen volunteers who joined Salt Lake County leaders in an effort to fill 15,000 sandbags over the course of two days beginning Friday. County Mayor Jenny Wilson volunteered along with her father, Ted Wilson, who was mayor of Salt Lake City during the 1983 floods.

He said that flood has served as a warning to city and state leaders ever since.

“I think the fact that we had that flood in ’83 has caused political leaders and others — Jenny is a good example of it — to say, ‘We’re not going to mess around, we’re going to be prepared,'” he said. “More water will come down this year than ’83, and it means that you got to be … ahead of it.”

Jenny Wilson also said the 1983 flood has prompted improvements in infrastructure, and that the county remains focused on flood prevention and mitigation.

“I think there was a move after ’83 to make sure the public infrastructure was updated, that we are keeping key employees on board throughout the year — like our flood control team — to continue to clear areas, get the branches and debris out of our pipes and infrastructure so the drainage is working in the right way,” she said. “So there have been a lot of steps since then, and we’ve seen some success when we’ve seen flooding years between ’83 and now.”

“This is a big year … we feel very prepared and we’re hoping that Mother Nature doesn’t surprise us with extreme temperature rise,” she continued.

Both stressed the the importance of being prepared for possible floods, especially for homeowners.

“We need to take a close look at the amount of water that comes immediately, because you’ve got to be up to capacity at that point in terms of your remedial stuff,” Ted Wilson said. “If you’re not ready to go ahead of the ballgame, you’re cooked.”

“Take a look if you do live along a stream corridor at your brush and your area around the creek and just expect that creek to rise,” Jenny Wilson said. “You don’t want that brush and that debris to end up in the creek, that’s a problem. It can lead to diversions, a blockage of the flow and that’s a problem.”

The county will continue filling sandbags until 4 p.m. Friday, and from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday at 604 W. 6960 South, in Midvale. Volunteers who help fill sandbags can take 25 home for their own flood mitigation.

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