Soggy Excuses

Flooded Rancho Sahuarita residents say damage to their homes could have been avoided

It's been well-established that if a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, it indeed does make a sound.

Meanwhile, there's a much more pressing nature question on the minds of homeowners in one of Southern Arizona's largest master-planned communities—a question that could result in a nasty legal battle: If a previously unaltered and unthreatening wash suddenly floods, dumping water, dirt and debris into adjacent homes and yards, is anyone responsible?

This scenario has surfaced in Rancho Sahuarita, a community of 5,000 homes. The development best known for its water park and blue-tinged lake became a miniature disaster zone on Sept. 9, when a stronger-than-average monsoon caused a wall of muddy storm runoff to swell over a decorative wall that separates one neighborhood from a natural wash.

All told, 15 homes were damaged. At least one is considered uninhabitable, with the tenants—including their small children—living in a hotel.

"I had three inches of water in my house," Jennifer Carpenter said. "My shoes were floating in the kitchen. A neighbor came over with two Boy Scouts to help pull up carpet."

Many of the affected homes, which lie parallel to the wash and face each other, now have giant dirt berms and sandbags blocking their front doors. The neighborhood now has the look of a makeshift neighborhood militia preparing to ward off the evil government tax collectors. Inside the homes, though, are hard-working residents wondering what happened, and who—if anyone—will pay to repair the damage.

"We don't think it's our responsibility to have to pay for this," homeowner Melinda May said. "We really just want somebody to say, 'We did something wrong.'"

So far, no one is accepting any blame.

Sharpe and Associates, the developer behind the creation and cultivation of the 3,000-acre community since it was first approved in the mid-1990s, has acknowledged it owns the wash.

Tom Murphy, Sharpe and Associates' community liaison for Rancho Sahuarita, said the three insurance companies that cover the development and its homeowners' association are just now starting the process of figuring out what happened, and determining whether there's any blame to be placed.

In the meantime, a relief fund has been established through a local church to help affected residents with the short-term costs associated with cleaning up their homes.

"We wanted to be as proactive as possible," Murphy said of the fund, which has so far received donations and pledges tallying about $20,000. "When it comes to insurance, though, until it's over, I don't think anybody knows what the final solution would be. The last chapter, I don't think, has been written yet."

Murphy said the key to figuring everything out is understanding why the water flow became so heavy in that part of the wash. He said a trio of culverts installed under a bridge about a mile west of the flood area were supposed to spread water equally between them, yet all indications are that most of the runoff headed through the southernmost culvert—and straight toward the wall bounding the homes.

"What moved that water and changed those conditions?" Murphy asked. "That's what we need to find out."

That's easier said than done, said Tom Meixner, an associate professor of hydrology at the University of Arizona.

"Washes tend to sort of migrate their channel path over time," Meixner said. "It's difficult to manage these washes in a way to take into account all of the possibilities."

The affected homes are not in a designated flood plain, and not surprisingly, none of the owners had flood insurance, because they'd never been given any indication that they were in danger of flooding, they say.

"We asked numerous times during the buying process: Are we in a flood zone? 'Nope,'" recalled Steve Weems. "I would have never bought a house in a flood zone."

Weems said he's noticed over the years that the floor of the wash kept seemingly getting higher, information he shared with the HOA.

"I actually took photos of the house when we first moved into it in 2006," Weems said. "I took the pictures from (the other) side of the wall, and you could see how low the wash was. With each rain, the sediment was building up. We told the HOA and got nothing but lip service. Our calls just fell on deaf ears."

The closest anyone got to a reaction out of the HOA was in July of this year, when May sent a video [see below] showing floodwater cresting over the wall and into her backyard, ruining some plants but otherwise staying out of her house.

"I knew that it was just a matter of time before it happened again," May said. "I went to the HOA, but for the whole month of July and a little bit into August, I got the runaround. I pretty much felt like a dog chasing my tail. I think from the moment I brought it up, they knew whose responsibility it was, but no one wanted to come forward and step up and fork over the money to take care of it."

May said landscapers finally came out and repaired some yard damage on Sept. 6, three days before the big flood.

Murphy said no one was trying to avoid the wash issue. Rather, there was uncertainty about what could be done to alter a natural wash without permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which handles all permits associated with construction in and around waterways.

"Because the complexity of all of it in total, it probably took longer than anyone wanted to try to figure out a permanent solution," Murphy said.

Weems said the 'we couldn't do anything' excuse is unacceptable, considering how swift the response was after the Sept. 9 flood.

"They said they couldn't do anything (before); miraculously, the very next day (after the flood) ... they're out there doing something," he said. "This was 100 percent preventable."

Affected residents say they haven't ruled out taking legal action.

"We all just want our houses to be back the way they were Sept. 8," May said. "We're only discussing pursuing a lawyer if they say ... 'You're on your own.'"