When newlyweds Lori Faith and Bill Merritt found their piece of property along the Cañada del Oro at the base of the Santa Catalinas, they believed they'd found a little piece of heaven. An acre of ranch land surrounded by green horse pasture on every side, it was a dream come true.
"We were living in a rental up the hill and looking for something to buy. It took a year of solidly looking," said Lori, 39. "We were already in escrow on a place at Tangerine and Thornydale, when I kept getting a feeling about this ranch."
In April 2002, she met the owner of what was then L'harmonie de Cheval, a 46-acre horse ranch at Lago del Oro Parkway just north of Golder Ranch Road. "She and her husband needed help with the ranch," said Lori, a native Tucsonan who'd been around horses since the age of 7. "I said if I lived closer I could help you."
A few months later, the owners had hired Lori as their ranch barn manager to care for 28 horses, and sold the Merritts a one-acre parcel on the other side of the Canada del Oro.
"We wanted to live here so badly," she said. "We'd already ordered our home, put in pipe, cleared the land and paid the developers. Then the county said 'We think it's too dangerous.'"
Two days before delivery of the Merritts' tan and teal four-bedroom manufactured home, the county reversed its earlier decision. "We were advised that this is a 100-year flood plain and that we needed to have our house elevated 18 inches. The county said 'You have a one in 100 chance of flooding in a 100-year period.'"
"I felt victorious, elated that we could go live our dream," Lori said. Most evenings her husband, Bill, 38, a Tucson bill collector, played the guitar on the front steps, while she worked her horse, a gray named Lazarus. "It's been beautiful, private and quiet," she said. "I don't think I'd ever been so happy."
All that came to an end Monday night, Aug. 25, when the fastest flow ever measured in the area roared down the Cañada del Oro, ripping out the Merritt's corral, fences, gates and two sturdy sheds full of books.
"We were in bed when the sheriff's department came by about 10:15 p.m. and told us we had a 10- to 15-minute window before the flood was going to hit," she said. "We got our vehicles up the hill and a halter on the horse with the water 20 feet behind chasing us off the property."
For the next six hours, the Merritts, drenched, watched from a neighbors' porch while whitewater raged and crashed and horses screamed from the pastures below.
"The lightning kept flashing," Lori said. "We watched the propane tank spinning and bobbing." The couple's three cats and two dogs were in the house. By 4 a.m., they were able to go back down and turn off the propane and the air conditioner.
"There was still about a foot of water and it was really swirling," said Lori. A 110-gallon drum full of birdseed, fancifully painted with the words "Merritt Sanctuary," was gone. The house, which sits on a brick foundation, was miraculously spared. County officials warned the couple that "next time it will come through the house."
Downstream, the damage was far worse.
Vaughn Hoffmeister, 50, owner of V & L Nursery on Lago del Oro, lost everything. "It was the most dangerous, unbelievable thing I've ever seen in my life," he said. "It's amazing nobody died."
Less than two weeks earlier, on Aug. 14, another flash flood raged through the area, killing Jim Huntington, 59, at his canyon home outside Oracle on the other side of the Santa Catalinas.
When that flood hit Catalina, Hoffmeister, with fast moving water up to his chest, rescued several children stranded on a swing set. "We got pulled under the water at one point, the last kid was almost flying off the rope," he said. "Now those kids are so traumatized that when they see rain they're scared."
It took 25 years for the nursery owner to build up his Catalina business. "We had nesting owls, blue-belly lizards, king snakes, more quail than you've every seen. It really started going with SaddleBrooke," he said. "All of a sudden, it's gone."
Hoffmeister and his wife Elizabeth, 49, want to remain in the Catalina area, if they can afford it. But he believes it's too dangerous to try to rebuild in the floodplain. "Some people don't want to leave, but they'd better, I mean it," he said. "They'd better, because they will lose their life."
At a meeting Thursday night with nearly 200 Catalina residents who live up and down the floodplain, Pima County officials urged those hardest hit to consider selling their property to the county through its Floodprone Land Acquisition program.
Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry promised that the county would pay relocation costs and a fair market price for homes and property, with priority going to those most severely flooded. "We would encourage you to move quickly," he said.
"You clearly are bearing the brunt of the Aspen Fire," said District 1 Supervisor Ann Day. "We want to get a check to you quickly and have us purchase your property. We're ready to do it."
"It's very important to consider relocating," said Suzanne Shields, deputy director of the Pima County Flood Control District. "This is the worst we've seen in this area. It's not going to get better soon."
Most of the severe burn during the Aspen Fire occurred in the CDO watershed, she said. Loss of vegetation from the fire has left little to hold back or slow runoff during monsoon rains.
Golder Ranch Fire District Assistant Chief Pat Abel, who was one of 40 rescue personnel on duty the night of Aug. 25. "The Aspen Fire has produced conditions that (make the mountain) act like a tin roof - it's coming off in sheets." And it will only get worse with snowmelt and rain next spring.
According to flood gauges at Rancho Solano south of Biosphere 2, a peak 12.6 feet of water roiled through the CDO at 7,408 cubic feet per second at 9:42 p.m. the night of Aug. 25, despite normal or near normal monsoon rainfall - from a half inch to almost two inches - higher up in the mountains. At 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 14, the same gauge station measured a peak 10.4 feet of water raging through the CDO at 4,891 cfs.
The largest recorded flood event for the area was measured at 1,600 cfs Jan. 8, 1993. In contrast, a 100-year flood event would flow at 18,000 cfs, said Chris Cawein, a flood plain division manager for the County. The flood of 1983 predated the monitoring system.
Bank protection is expensive, about $1.5 million per mile. "The philosophy has also changed over the years, with river health dependent on having a flood plain," he said. "And if you channelize the river - pinch the water off into a smaller area - the water speed will pick up."
At Thursday's meeting with the community, Huckelberry predicted that it would take three to five years for normal vegetative cover to return to the mountain. In the short term, the county will dredge and clean it, removing debris and mud that seal the channel and make flooding worse. He said the county has no plans to build up the walls of the wash.
On Friday morning, Lori Faith Merritt started the day at 5:30 a.m. by driving around Catalina looking for land. "I can't find anything," she said. She pulled back her kitchen curtains, nodding to a view of open horse pasture on every side. "There's nothing like this we can afford."