CANYON, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – This Memorial Day weekend marks 45 years since torrential rainfall led to the flooding of Palo Duro Canyon State Park and the areas surrounding it.
In 90 minutes, in excess of 10 inches of rain would fall west of Canyon and this flood would lead to deaths, injuries, and millions of dollars worth of damage.
“There was a line of storms that were across the western part of the panhandle and there were two, what we call supercell thunderstorms, so singular thunderstorms that affected, especially the Canyon area, and one of them really slowed down as it made kind of a right turn and this interacted with a stalled outflow boundary and that really enhanced the rainfall across the area,” said National Weather Service Amarillo Warning Coordination Meteorologist Joanne Culin.
According to the National Weather Service Amarillo, at the junction of Palo Duro Creek and Tierra Blanca Creek, the water rose to a stage of 27.1 feet.
The previous high of the confluence of the creeks was 20.7 feet during the floods of August 1968, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
According to a study from the Geological Society of America, on the afternoon of May 26th, approximately 3000 acre-feet of runoff was captured by the Buffalo Lake Dam, and in the early morning hours of May 27th, runoff going into Palo Duro Creek produced major flooding in the town of Canyon and the flood peak reached the dam at Lake Tanglewood at about 5 A.M., where it flowed six feet above the spillway, and at the same time, it began affecting campgrounds in Palo Duro Canyon State Park, according to The Texas Journal of Science.
“On May 27th, 1978, our river at the bottom of the canyon swelled to over 24 feet of water down here,” said Palo Duro Canyon State Park Interpreter Bradley Kliemann.
Kliemann added with the flood water reaching its peak, most park managers could not reach those at the bottom of the canyon.
“They were trying their best to get that message out to people. The night before, a sort of weather statement had been issued, but we had not expected that it would rain nearly as much as it did down here and as fast as it came down, causing those rivers to swell. So while there was sort of a statement made, there was not a lot of preparation by our park or a lot of the visitors who were there. So, our managers came out that evening and they tried their very best to get to the bottom of the canyon there, but because of 24 feet of water, there wasn’t any way to get safely across that water to convey that message of how serious this was to the people that were staying down there,” said Kliemann.
As park managers were unable to reach campers and those at the bottom of the canyon, Kliemann said many campers pitched in and helped rescue one another.
“That’s why we saw a lot of miraculous rescues, if you will, by people that were staying down here, helping each other out. People getting to the top of vehicles, top of vans, hanging out on top of cottonwood trees, sort of kind of swimming, trying their best to sort of stay alive down here,” said Kliemann.
One of those campers who pitched in to save those down in the canyon included my grandfather, Frank Merryman, and a man, he had met earlier in the day named Mel.
“He had a boat on his truck. We unloaded the boat and he had a motor and we put the motor on it and we started going down through the park trying to warn people,” said Merryman.
Merryman added the reason he helped was that it was just the right thing to do.
“I guess it was just camper comradery if that’s what you want to call it, but we knew people were in need and we wanted to try to help if we could,” said Merryman.
He said he hopes the story of that night leaves an impression to help out when someone is in need.
“I just hope that it instills a need for, if you see someone in need, help. If in all possible, do what you can to help out and keep everyone as safe as possible,” said Merryman.
The flood would result in the drowning deaths of four people, 15 people being injured, and 15 homes were destroyed, 81 homes suffered major damage, 37 homes had minor damage, 27 mobile homes were destroyed along with 300 automobiles and 12 camping trailers. Over 100 apartments, three country clubs, and three dams also suffered major damage, according to storm data released by the NOAA in May 1978. In total $8 to $10 million in damages were incurred because of the flood, according to a report from January 1979 from the Weather Modification & Technology Section of the Texas Department of Water Resources.
The NOAA called it ‘clearly the most devastating flood in the Randall County area since weather records were kept’, and Dr. Paul Matney, a local television meteorologist at the time, called it a 100-year flood.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been 45 years, but that creek has rarely seen that much water trying to find its way out of the canyon and it was a real significant flood. Debris was found as things swept down the little stream there and the water was so high, that debris was found up in the trees, so that’s pretty significant,” said Dr. Matney.
Dr. Matney added the magnitude of the devastation was unlike anything he had seen.
“Once we found out what was happening down there, of course, the news department was on the air with reports periodically. We were giving meteorically reports, weather reports, and so the entire station came together, because that was one of the most significant events, news events, even though it had to do with weather, it was a big news event. And so, everybody so on guard, and everybody was wanting to get information on the air to prevent people from going down there. We didn’t think it was going to be that serious at first, but when it just didn’t move and it kept on, and on, and then when we got reports, we realized we had, in many ways a tragic situation down there.”
In the 45 years since the devastating flood, improvements have been made to Palo Duro Canyon.
“In 2010, we did a little bit of reservation to our park, if you will. We put in the bridge crossings that you can see at the bottom of the canyon. Before the roadway just went down to the bottom of the creek and then back out and that obviously caused a lot of problems when the river ebbed and flowed there. So, today having those bridge crossings, though they can flood, it really can help in having an elevated way to go across the river there, and even on a day-to-day visit here, it makes the canyon a lot more safe,” said Kliemann.
And additionally, how warnings are sent out about severe weather.
“Technology has significantly improved to get our message out like I mentioned. Flash flood warnings go on everyone’s cell phones, especially if they are more considerable or catastrophic significants. Just detection using radar technology has improved greatly since 1978, so we are able to hone in on those areas better and get the message out that that there is significant flooding occurring,” said Culin.
Kliemann added that the response today would be very different from 1978.
“That’s a little bit different… if we did have that unprecedented flooding again how our response would be. I think today, we would really want to make sure that message is clear,” said Kliemann.
Kliemann said for the event the Canyon flood was, it showcases the power of water.
“It really goes to show that our entire canyon was carved out by water and it will continue to erode as time goes on, with the forces of water and wind down here,” said Kliemann.
Dr. Matney added the Canyon flood is a good example of what television and radio can do during emergency situations to give people the information they need to be safe.
“It goes to show that things can happen and you got to keep an eye on it, and people really turned on their television sets and listened to weather broadcasters because they want to know… it’s really a good example of what television and radio can do in emergency situations to give people the information that they need to be safe. So I think anybody that goes into meteorology or the news department just needs to realize how important news reporting and accurate reporting is for the safety of people in their viewing area,” said Dr. Matney.
Kliemann added it’s always important to be prepared when heading to Palo Duro Canyon and to be mindful of weather conditions as you and your family plan to head to the canyon.
“We don’t want people to you know prepare for the worst, per se, when they come down here, but we do want them to be prepared in case something does happen,” said Kliemann.