We are now in the middle of our "monsoon season," which doesn’t necessarily mean rains are a certainty. But when they do come, the desert storms can build rapidly, with highly-localized intensity.
That’s what happened 46 years ago along the Colorado River south of Las Vegas, resulting in one of the worst flood disasters in Southern Nevada history.
News 3 took a closer look at this story back in 2010.
“It was a Saturday,” remembered Tony Werly. “One of the last Saturdays of the summer. The water had been nice and everything.”
Werly was operating Techatticup Mine Tours in Nelson, just up Eldorado Canyon from what was Nelson’s Landing about an hour outside Las Vegas. The marina itself was a dozen miles from where the thunderstorms moved in.
“The people could see the cloud brewing up in the canyon,” said Werly. “But they never realized that as the cloud came down the canyon, that the flood was right underneath. And it made a big wall of water.”
“If it had been a light rain, I probably would have been there,” Kenny Belknap told News 3. “But it was raining quite hard.”
Belknap had been to the marina many times, and his family was aware of the danger.
“The government at that time was talking about closing Nelson's Landing because of track record that they had of these major floods that run through these canyons.”
And that’s exactly what happened. A boater that day was filming the marina from the other side of the river when the floodwaters hit. A large wall of water can be seen engulfing the marina.
“As it came in, it's got three big washes that merge to it,” said Werly. “And just as it gets to the bottom, they all merge into it, which created a great big wall of water. I don't know, 8, 9 feet tall probably. Enough to take cars out into the river half the way.”
Newspaper stories played out over the next few days as the scope of the damage became clear. Pictures afterward show how the canyon had been scoured, motor-homes crushed, SCUBA divers preparing to search for bodies.
Different numbers showed up in the press. But the final count was nine dead, including a waitress at the marina, two kids, a college basketball coach and a Chaparral High School teacher, memorialized in the yearbook the following spring. The devastation was complete.
“No trace of life or any kind of buildings or anything,” said Belknap. “The wall of water that came through there, everything in its path was gone.”
Today there are no facilities at Nelson's Landing, just a dirt road that leads to the edge of the water.
Similar conditions existed at Willow Beach upstream, where a trailer park and campground have been removed. Concession facilities, the ranger station and public parking were eventually relocated out of the flood plain.