Anniversary of a polygamous community’s flood carries grief and new camaraderie

Colorado City, Ariz. • Not much is ordinary here. Colorado City and adjacent Hildale, Utah, are, after all, one of the few places in North America where polygamy is still practiced.

The flood that rolled through here a year ago was extraordinary. It killed 13 women and children from two families who were trapped in their vehicles when water poured through a wash in Hildale. Seven others died in a slot canyon in Zion National Park, and one man died near Hurricane.

So when residents gathered Wednesday, on the first anniversary of the flood, it was not an ordinary remembrance. As memorials for 21 dead go, it was an upbeat affair.

Speakers cursed the flood, but they gave it credit for uniting the people of Hildale and Colorado City, collectively known as Short Creek.

"While we mourn the tragedy of those who lost their lives, we celebrate the synergy that was born from that event," said Harvey Dockstader, Jr., one of the memorial's organizers.

Short Creek is the traditional home of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, whose faith includes the practice of polygamy. The 13 who died here were members of the church, and included two sister wives, Josephine and Naomi Jessop, who also were biological sisters. Followers generally eschew communicating with nonmembers and consider the thousands of people who have left the faith to be apostates. But the flood forced all sides to work together to search for the victims and clean and repair the flood damage.

Terrill Musser, another organizer who spoke at the memorial in Cottonwood Park, about a mile downstream from where the Hildale victims were swept, focused on the different people and first responders who helped search for 6-year-old Tyson Black, whose body has never been recovered. Trained searchers from state and local agencies, as well as the Utah National Guard, looked for the boy, and so did residents of the two towns who walked wash and creek banks for miles.

"No one cared what you believed in," Musser, a former member of the FLDS, told the 150 or so people in the crowd. "We all had a common goal: Let's bring Tyson home."

Musser credited the state governments in Utah and Arizona for sending relief workers and supplies, and he thanked people from other states and foreign countries with no ties to Short Creek who sent food or money. Then he returned his focus to the good ways the disaster affected the towns.

"When people look back 50 and 100 years ago and say, 'When did Hildale and Colorado City change?' it's going to be the flood," Musser said.

Some divisions were on display Wednesday, if only by omission. FLDS faithful staff the town governments, and no elected officials from the towns spoke at the memorial. Dockstader said residents organized the memorial when they learned the municipal governments weren't planning one.

No one from the families of the deceased spoke. There were a few women in prairie dresses and men in long-sleeved, monochromatic button-up shirts — the traditional attire of the FLDS.

In an interview before the memorial, Shirlee Draper, who sits on a local housing board, said the floods forced the FLDS members to interact with others and softened them. Draper recalled how, in the floods aftermath, she saw an FLDS cousin she hadn't seen in years and gave the woman a hug.

Draper knows people who have left the FLDS in the past year, and she believes the interactions during the floods were a factor in their departures.

"Somewhere in the back of their minds, [FLDS members] know they can come out and be OK," Draper said.

The Sept. 14 floods have been called one of the deadliest weather disasters in Utah history. Besides the 13 in Hildale, the same rain caused a flash flood that killed seven people in a slot canyon in Zion National Park and a flood that killed a Hurricane man.

As the last daylight was fading from Cottonwood Park on Wednesday, a speaker read the names of all 21 victims and handed a candle to someone to serve as a victim's proxy. The candleholders and the crowd walked to the edge of the park to a pedestrian bridge above the wash, where the flood waters ran.

The crowd sang the hymn "I Am a Child of God." Then, on command, people in the crowd released white balloons.