I recently posed a question on a Facebook site called, “If you grew up in Salt Lake, you will remember this.” I asked the followers what they remembered about the 1983 Salt Lake flood that sent a river coursing down State Street. It struck a chord and I heard back from many people about the sandbag parties, the rushing water, the fears of essential equipment getting overwhelmed.
Salt Laker Janet Duran commented, “I remember a sign on a bank: ‘The only thing worse than a flooded basement is a flooded attic.’”
I spoke with Steven Faurschou who worked downtown that Spring.
“My office was at 155 S State Street. I was working on a computer conversion at Utah/Idaho Supply in the Beneficial Life Building that Sunday. The office was on the second story, and I looked out the window, south down State Street, trying to figure out what all the commotion was about. Cars were being towed away and trucks were dumping sand in the middle of the street.”
Faurschou went down to see what was going on, and city workers told him that the street was going to become a river that night. People were coming to stack sandbags and they advised him to “grab some sandbags, sandbag your building, and be prepared for lots of water.”
“Literally thousands of people showed up to fill sandbags,” Faurschou said. “It was amazing to see all those people out there working. Churches let their congregations out early to sandbag. It really brought the community together … ”
Faurschou decided to stay downtown to watch the water come, and come it did. “At first it was a small trickle. Nothing more than a heavy rainstorm. I thought it was kind of anticlimactic. But as I kept watching, more and more started coming down the street and soon it was up to the level of the sandbags. They were stacked three high. The engineers could see that the middle of the street was higher than the edges, like a crown, so people started wading to the middle of the street to move the bags to the edges and curbs.”
By then the water was flowing so fast and strong it knocked people off their feet. Faurschou said he watched in amazement as one guy was swept all the way to 2nd South with a sandbag on his lap.
“One thing really concerning,” Faurschou said, “was that when the river started down State Street, there was a real fear about all the utility infrastructure running along the street. City workers were hoping to keep water out of it, but if they weren’t able to do that, and if the tunnels flooded, all power would be lost. They couldn’t predict how long it would take to repair if that happened.” Fortunately for the city, that didn’t happen.
Faurschou had a front row window to the Salt Lake River for the next couple of weeks. He watched bridges go up to cross the street and people navigating the new reality.
The flood didn’t just impact downtown. Faurschou said that 13 South was closed from Liberty Park to the Jordan River. He said they actually hauled in dirt to build a canal to siphon off some of the water. They also enlarged the pond in the park to handle the runoff.
There were water dikes along I-80 railroad tracks, and Saltair was inundated. All the attractions were flooded and ruined after only being open for a few years.
It wasn’t all serious though.
Resident Joe Mortensen made the most of the situation. “I had my fly rod and waders with me and stopped downtown to have some fun while all the lookie loo tourists were down there snapping pictures,” he wrote. And Scuba Hamby recalls that, “In ‘83, we rode our bikes in the [State Street] river. We were kids, but man it was fun.”