by Rex Jensen
Reprinted with permission of author, Rex Jensen, Copyright Material
Flooded corrals and hay at Hidden Valley Dairy, August 10, 1981
Howard and Brenda Harrison had just returned from a vacation in early August, when a typical summer thundershower came through their trailer park near Moapa in Southern Nevada.
Howard is employed by Decade Corporation Dairies at Hidden Valley as a welder. The dairy is the biggest in the state - it has a total herd of 6800 cows - and employs a large number of workers. Most of the workers live in mobile homes provided by the dairy and are located near the California Wash, just east of the sprawling dairy.
The wash is usually dry; few have seen it actually carry water down its parched and rocky bed. John C. Fremont, one of the first white men to explore southern Nevada in 1843, camped under "the cliffs" of the wash he named, just around the corner from the present day Hidden Valley Dairy mobile park.
Although the wash is 100 yards wide and nearly 30 feet deep in places, few know its capacity and none, especially Howard and Brenda, were prepared for what would soon be the most terrifying experience of their lives.
Rain was falling at the dairy, and the strong winds brought by the thunderstorm had ripped metal coverings from shades built to give relief to the cows from the searing summer heat that had ranged between 110 and 115 degrees for the past three weeks.
Many had hoped for a "little thunderstorm" to cool things off. Not only are thundershowers hoped for, they are expected, since low pressure areas that sit over southern Nevada most of the summer eventually such warm moist are up from southern California or the Gulf of Mexico.
The relief was needed, even welcome, but Howard had been called out by the dairy supervisor at 6:15 p.m. to repair the dangerous fallen shades so the cows would not cut themselves.
Howard left the double-wide mobile home with Brenda dn their five young children inside and had gotten only a hundred yards away, when Don Madewell, another dairy employee who was to help him with the repairs, said, "Hey, I smell butane."
"So do I," replied Howard.
Madewell then looked toward the trailers and said, "Hey, there goes your house!"
The California Wash was already a raging torrent several feet deep, and trailers were beginning to move around in the park. Howard suddenly realized he could not reach his family trapped inside.
He ran to the dairy office, only two hundred yards away. Howard burst into the small office babbling, "My house and family are floating away." Dairy manager Dwain Hollefield, a capable man not subject to being panicked, was aghast. They both bolted from the office and began looking for help. Office personnel began calling for assistance as the severity of the flood became apparent to the workers.
From then until the flood waters began to recede two hours later, Howard cannot remember what happened, what he dit or where he was. "He was in shock, wiped out," a friend recalls.
The California Wash drains a huge area. It begins its drainage just northeast of Las Vegas and drains hundreds of square miles as it flows north before dumping into the tiny Muddy River at Hidden Valley.
A monstrous rain and hail storm less than 10 miles from the dairy had dumped tremendous amounts of water and hail into the wash drainage area. In fact, the hail denuded all the vegetation for a three-mile stretch of the wash. Rain fell on not more than one-tenth of the 50-mile wash. Meteorological experts at the National Weather Station in Las Vegas estimate up to six inches of rain could have fallen during the one-hour storm.
First indications that a flood was imminent came as the cloudburst-fed wash overflowed a nearby freeway bridge, closing the interstate and sweeping cars into the raging river. Motorists refused to stop for the "little desert flood" until Highway Patrol officers forced them to.
Brenda had just gone into the rear bathroom in the trailer, when her oldest girl, Jennie, began hollering, "Mama, the water is coming."
"No, it's ok; it's running off as fast as it's coming," replied Brenda. She had assumed her daughter was talking about the rain water running off the yard.
"Mama, you don't understand; there's a whole bunch of water," Jennie persisted.
Brenda, by now, was out of the bathroom, and water was already coming in their trailer. She ran to a near bedroom window to see what was happening.
"Two or three feet of mud was being pushed by an eight-foot wall of brown rolling flood water," she recalls.
Brenda yelled for the children to get into the hallway. When she peered out the window, the children were already in the hall waiting for their mother. As she turned to comfort the children in the hallway, a butane tank tore through the left rear bedroom of the trailer, passed through the trailer and tore out the right rear wall - filling the house with butane.
Within moments the trailer was ripped from its moorings, water, power and telephone connections and was afloat. As it was torn from the power hookup, a fire started in the rear of the trailer but was promptly doused by the flood waters. "The good Lord only knows why the whole trailer didn't blow up right then," recalls Brenda.
By now, Brenda had all five children into an adjacent bedroom, where she knocked out a window to get fresh air from the suffocating gas that was still in the trailer. From her perch half outside the small bedroom window, she watched helplessly as the flood waters carried them down the road. She saw her neighbors watch in horror as she and her children floated away on the muddy torrent.
The force of the water carried the trailer west for some 200 yards, then northeast through a pasture adjacent to the cow corrals. Water was now waist deep, and the powerful currents outside turned and twisted the trailer, making navigation inside the trailer difficult.
The front door came open, and Brenda swam over and closed it. As she began working her way back to her children, she found movement difficult as brush, trash and debris filled the trailer. Furniture and beds, dressers, boxes and toys were also being forced through the narrow hallway - making it nearly impossible to pass through.
Then, a full-grown 1,800 pound milk cow came in through the kitchen door and began thrashing around inside. Soon, thought, water was up to Brenda's neck, and the cow was afloat. This calmed the cow down, but not before Brenda feared it might crush her children. The cow would be their companion throughout the next two horrifying hours.
Although it was the hottest part of the summer, the water in their trailer was near freezing. Six inches of ice floated on top of the water in the trailer, a result of the massive hail storm that had occurred not an hour before. Brenda and the children were shivering and began to feel numb.
Brenda and the five children, Jennie, 12; Angie, 11; Karen, age 9 and suffering from cystic fibrosis; Charlie, 6; and Mandy, 19 months, were still in the bedroom, the lowest part of the trailer. She decided it was time to move to the front of the trailer, where the water appeared to be lower. She knew the water would soon be over the children's heads.
Before moving from the small bedroom, she saw cows floating all around the trailer, many of them trying to get in. For a brief moment, she contemplated throwing the children on the backs of the cows in hopes they would carry them to high ground. She quickly dismissed the idea as insane and moved them into the dining room.
After hoisting the children onto the buffet, she climbed up herself, all the while clutching the baby in her left arm.
As the water continued to rise, Jennie panicked. She had caused Brenda the most difficulty throughout the ordeal, and now she went completely out of control, fearing they would all drown. To calm her down, Brenda "smacked Jennie in the face." To her surprise, "she came right out of it."
Dead cows, debris, mud and flood refuse are stacked against corral fencing where the flood deposited them
The younger children seemed relatively unconcerned. "They thought they would be alright because they were with their mama," Brenda says.
After Jennie had been slapped out of her panic, she said to her mother, "No, Mama, we aren't going to die. He (God) said he wouldn't let us die in a flood."
When Howard and Don Madewell first saw Howard's house floating away. Don immediately ran to his trailer, which was next to the Harrison trailer but in water less deep. Howard went to the office for help and was then picked up by Don's brother, Vernon. They frantically tried to get where they could see the trailer and watch its course.
Howard feared it would go down the river, through the bridges and kill his entire family. In fact, from the moment he first saw his trailer floating away, "I knew they were gone; I just knew I would never see them alive again," he says.
As he and Vernon drove through fences (and everything else in their way) to keep track of his trailer, they actually got within a hundred yards of the trailer and were able to holler for some sign of life.
"We heard nothing, and I just knew they were all dead," Howard confesses. No one in the trailer heard their calls, though they were still alive.
After Brenda had the children safely above the water on the buffet, the trailer turned northwest and began to pass through cow corrals. The trailer would hit four-inch steel pipes, hang up momentarily, then lurch past, strike more steel posts and rip on over them. "We floated right over some of the mangers," she remembers. The mangers were six feet high. After 30 long terrifying minutes of floating, the trailer suddenly came to rest. From that moment, the water rose rapidly in the trailer.
Brenda once again had to maneuver the children to higher ground. She began opening cupboards and stuffing the children inside. It was awkward, and they complained about their quarters, but there they stayed. Karen went in one; Charlie went in another.
The water now left them only head space. Brenda clung to the baby in the icy waters, the children hung on, and their four-legged companion, the holstein milk cow, had only her nose above water.
The family would be forced to stand, hang and cling in awkward positions for another hour and a half. Charlie became exhausted from the ordeal and from his perch clinging to the cupboard said, "Mama, I can't hang on any more."
"Alright, Charlie. If you don't hold on, you're just gonna slip right down into that water, and you'll drown," Brenda warned. "OK, Mama," said Charlie, and he hung on.
Brenda began ripping out the ceiling, eventually succeeding in tearing out the celotex so she could cling to a two-by-two in the ceiling. She thought perhaps the wind had torn off some of the aluminum roofing and they could get up onto the roof. But she was not strong enough to break through the metal covering and soon gave up trying.
Brenda knew they were all in danger of drowning. Would the waters continue to rise? Would that cow crush us, or knock us off the buffet? What could she do? She was getting frantic; the windows, doors and all openings were covered with water. All she could do was pray.
"I was so terrified, thinking what a way to go - to see my children die right before my eyes." She prayed; "Lord, don't let my babies die; take me but don't let my babies die."
Immediately, the water inside the trailer began to recede, and for the first time they had a ray of hope that they might survive the incredible ordeal.
Brenda was not certain the water would continue to go down; it could also come up; again, she thought. She had assumed the entire dairy had been destroyed and swept away by the flood. She didn't know exactly where they were. Cows were floating all around them, and the way the trailer was positioned - even after the water level dropped below the window tops - all she could see was water.
By now, the entire area had been evacuated and most of the residents were positioned on a mesa west of the dairy complex, where they had a panoramic view of the entire flooded area. Few had faith that the Harrisons remained alive.
But Vernon remembered a small fishing boat that had been placed near the maintenance yard to be worked on. The motor had been taken out, and there were no oars. Vernon beckoned to Thom Taylor, Kelly Booth and Bill Burg to jump into the boat, and they began pulling themselves toward the flooded trailer.
The foursome began maneuvering through the corrals, fighting off cows who tried to hop a ride in the 14-foot boat. Strong currents made progress difficult. They grabbed some boards floating in the water and pushed their way another 200 feet to the trailer. The water was swift, and maneuvering was difficult.
As they neared the rear of the trailer, they began yelling, hoping to hear some signs of life. The men approached with great apprehension; few believed they were still alive, but they knew they must try. Thom was fearful of finding only bodies floating in the muddy waters.
But Brenda and the kids yelled back, and the men in the boat quickly maneuvered to the far side of the trailer where the noise had come from.
By now, the water had dropped a foot and a half, and the window opening was a foot above water. Madewell ripped the aluminum window frame out, and he and Thom went in after the family.
To their relief, all were alive. Little Charlie dived right out the window and swam to the boat. The other children were helped out by the rescuers. Mandy, the baby, had to be pried from Brenda's left arm. She could not move or open her arm; it had been frozen in the same mothering position for nearly two hours.
The men had difficulty getting the exhausted woman into the boat, fearing it might be swamped before they could get her in. They even contemplated leaving her there and coming back for her.
But Thom, a large, strong man, said, "I'll get her in," and he jumped into the water and threw her into the boat.
As the overloaded boat left the trailer, the milk cow was still inside. She would survive, but hundreds of cows on the outside would not be so lucky.
As the boat pulled away from the sunken trailer, someone on the nearby mesa spotted the new passengers and shouted. "All right, there she is." The entire hillside erupted into shouts and cheers for the rescued family.
Brenda still did not know her husband was alive. Howard would not believe reports his family had been rescued. Soon, however, the family was reunited on the mesa, and "we just hugged up," said Brenda; the children clung to their parents, still shivering from their cild, terrifying ordeal.
Brenda and the five children all suffered frostbite on their toes, feet, legs and abdomen, and they would soon learn of the destruction the flood had done to others.