Saturday, June 19, 2004

Day of the tornado: The storm of '72 helped to shape Scottsdale

By Douglas McDaniel

Yesterday came suddenly, sang Paul McCartney all those years ago.
I was 12 years old, no doubt watching "Wallace and Ladmo." Little beep, beep, beeps went up on the TV screen (if those weather system warnings on the bulletin bar on the bottom screen actually worked like that, back then).
Hard to remember.
What I do remember is this: We had just moved from Texas to the Country Estates subdivision at 58th Place and Shea Boulevard six days before.
On the seventh day, the rain came.
Well, not so much rain. At least, not at first. The details of that day still linger. The visual impact the storm of 1972 created is still in my mind better than any DVD could possibly replicate. It was 32 years ago this week. Imagine that. I can see it. Feel it. Almost smell it.
Back then a new plat in the Country Estates subdivision was like a cookie-cutter parcel of the moon. Sure, there was mesquite all over, but once the fences sliced-and-diced the place, all of the new back yards were, until the landscaper arrived, squared-off hotbeds of fine whitish, powdery dust. On that day or any other, the dust would get stirred up into swirls of volatile air, which we called "Dust Devils."
We still get "Dust Devils" now and then, but with the paradising effect that's gone on since these bad 'ol days, the name is being lost with all of the horny toads, rattlers and coyotes running for cover from civilization. Suddenly, it gets windy. Then, it's not. You'd hardly notice it. But on that day, June 22, 1972, the whole greater Paradise Valley area, basically the Indian Bend Wash basin, from Mummy Mountain to the McDowell Mountains, was a whirling set of such dervishes, a practical ballet performance, as weather patterns go.
Anyway, I tell this story to newcomers a lot because it teaches something about the monsoons (which this wasn't) and the history of Scottsdale (a lost great body of knowledge that exists, if it exists at all, in the archives of the old Scottsdale Progress and the Scottsdale Historical Society).
The story doesn't actually begin with me watching "Wallace and Ladmo," the old TV kids show, but with what I was doing when my dad came home as I was watching Wallace, and, of course, Ladmo.
He was mad about something. My dad. Not Ladmo. He was upset, you see, because he just got back from talking to some insurance agent. The story begins when my dad said, right after coming through the door: "They wanted us to buy flood insurance. Those (bleeps!). Don't they know this is the desert?"
Country Estates is on the northern banks of the Indian Bend Wash. With the exception of a few golf courses, as it flowed to the Salt River, it was still a desert wash with mesquite and sage and rabbits and mice and prairie dogs. In the spring, lots and lots of butterflies. When it rained, even the slightest, downtown Scottsdale would be in need of Noah's Ark.
The next start of the story, after the beeping TV warning, after my dad's now famous last words, flows in this direction: Hail stones, the size of golf balls, plopping, puft, puft, puft, into super-heated, white hot dust. Then the wind came. Then came some more. Every dot of dust and debris not tied down flew by sideways by our windows, as if the Creator were converting our environment into something akin to a black day on Mars.
The roof began to wail. Fences picked up and were lifted off as wind sails in a scene from the black-and-white segment of "The Wizard of Oz."
Then, I looked out the window, and saw a tower, a dirt vortex, well up into the sky, up and out of the frame, cascading off Mummy Mountain.
Now, even before this, tornadoes have plain freaked me out. Sure, Dorothy's little house-spin into the air, up and back and down into Oz, always left a strong impression. But also this: Members of my grandfather's immediate family, his mother and father, had been killed by a tornado in West Texas (and he had to raise his younger siblings by himself as a teen). So, fear of tornadoes is pretty much in my DNA.
So, what did I do? Run? Scream? Duck for cover? No. I decided to go outside and get a better view. Went through front door. Looked up. It was a big, brown, swirling behemoth. Or, that's what my eyes, as dust bits pelted my face and sandblasted my hair and my mother screamed "Get back in here!" - that's what my eyes still feel, see and remember.
There was no time to do the classic, heartland-style, get-into-the-cellar maneuver. No time to even get into the hallway, away from the windows. But by God's grace (as well as the seeming lack of it) the tornado hit the house across the street, destroyed a roof, killed their dog, hopped then over the entire Country Estates neighborhood, and then landed again, turning Shea Boulevard and points northward into a Vietnam era-, Robert McNamara-style playground pathway of near total destruction. Hundreds of homes had varying degrees of damage. Uncounted numbers were rendered, national-TV-news style, into images of flattened rubble.
Then, the winds passed. A half-mile away, looking toward Shea, you could see nothing but the wrecked frames of bombed-out homes and flashing red emergency lights.
Then, it began to rain. In fact, it rained for a day. In fact, it rained four inches in four hours. The Indian Bend Wash became the Indian Bend River. It must have been a mile-wide muddy river, too. But I never knew. We couldn't even step out of our door for three days as the wash, our street, now a river, flowed on by with every bit of debris and clutter it could pick up. A wash. Indeed! A major Maytag this so-called "Paradise Valley" will always be, say, every hundred years or so.
Now, I could go on and on about not having electricity or water for a week. Or, about how some official landed in a helicopter behind our house, looked around, and then left. How I now imagine it was the governor come to bless us with his utter and useless amazement. I could thank the Lord for sparing us but punishing my neighborhood with a kind of creative whimsy, and yes, a cosmic sense of timing and selectivity.
It was, after all, right after the first official day of the summer. You could talk about solstices and the equinox and all ...
I could ask, why them, but not us?
It would be futile, of course, unless you have lived it, to try to fully explain the impact of this storm on myself, my family, and yes, this burgeoning city called Scottsdale. The number of times I've told this story to people. The day I faced the tornado.
I could historically render an image of how that flood ruined much of south Scottsdale as the Indian Bend "Wash" flowed southerly to the Salt, and how the city fathers decided: Enough was enough. From that point on, the move to greenbelt all of the wash was official policy in Scottsdale: The paradising of this place had begun.
How we are the inheritors of a legacy left by a storm. I could go on about chaos theory. About how there is no such thing as accidents.
No, it's best to just leave any readers left with this: Yesterday came suddenly.

Douglas McDaniel is a managing editor for Independent Newspapers. He can be e-mailed at