45 years since the canyon flood that left a path of destruction over Memorial Day weekend (2023)

CANYON, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – This Memorial Day weekend marks 45 years since torrential rains flooded Palo Duro Canyon State Park and surrounding areas.

In 90 minutes, over 10 inches of rain would fall west of Canyon, and this flooding would lead to deaths, injuries and millions of dollars worth of damage.

“There was a series of storms that were all over the western part of the handle and there were two, what we call supercell storms, so unique storms that affected, especially the Canyon area, and one of them really slowed down as it kind of made a right turn and that interacted with a stalled outflow boundary and that really boosted the rainfall across the region,” said meteorologist Joanne Culin of the National Weather Service Amarillo Warning Coordination.

45 years since the canyon flood that left a path of destruction over Memorial Day weekend (1)

At the confluence of Palo Duro Creek and Tierra Blanca Creek, water rose to 27.1 feet, according to the Amarillo National Weather Service.

45 years since the canyon flood that left a path of destruction over Memorial Day weekend (2)

The previous high of the creek's confluence was 20.7 feet during the August 1968 flood, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

According to a study byGeologicalSociety of America, on the afternoon of May 26, approximately 3000 acres of runoff were impounded by the Buffalo Lake dam, and in the early morning hours of May 27, runoff into Palo Duro Creek caused major flooding in Canyon City. and flooding peaked at the dam at Tanglewood Lake about 5 a.m., where it flowed six feet above the spillway and simultaneously began affecting campgrounds at Palo Duro Canyon State Park, according toThe Texas Journal of Science.

"On May 27, 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 floodwaters at their peak, most park managers couldn't reach those at the bottom of the canyon.

“They were trying to get that message across to people. The night before, a weather statement of sorts had been issued, but we didn't expect it to rain nearly as much as it did down here and as quickly as it did, causing the rivers to swell. So while some statement was made, there wasn't a lot of preparation from our park or the many visitors that were there. So our directors went out that night and tried their best to get to the bottom of the canyon there, but because of 24 feet of water, there was no way to safely cross that water to deliver that message about the how serious this was for the people who lived down there," Kliman said.

As park rangers were unable to reach the campers and those at the bottom of the canyon, Kliman said many campers stepped in and helped rescue each other.

“That's why we've seen a lot of miraculous rescues, if you will, of people living down here helping each other. People getting on top of vehicles, on top of trucks, hanging out on cottonwood trees, kind of swimming, trying to stay alive down here,” Kliemann said.

One of those campers who turned to rescue those down in the canyon was my grandfather, Frank Merryman, and a man he had met earlier in the day named Mel.

“He had a boat in his truck. We unloaded the boat and it had a motor and we put the motor on it and started going down through the park trying to warn people,” Merryman said.

Merryman added that the reason he helped was because it was the right thing to do.

"I guess it was just camper comradery if you want to call it that, but we knew people were in need and we wanted to try to help if we could," Merryman said.

He said he hopes the story of that night leaves an impression to help when someone is in need.

“I just hope it instills the need to help if you see someone in need. If possible, do what you can to help and keep everyone as safe as possible,” Merryman said.

The flood would result in four people drowning, 15 injured and 15 homes destroyed, 81 homes heavily damaged, 37 homes lightly damaged, 27 caravans destroyed along with 300 cars and 12 camper trailers. More than 100 apartments, three country clubs and three dams were also heavily damaged, according tostorm datareleased by NOAA in May 1978. A total of $8 to $10 million in damage was caused by the flood, according to areportsince January 1979 by the Weather Modification & Technology Division of the Texas Department of Water Resources.

45 years since the canyon flood that left a path of destruction over Memorial Day weekend (3)

NOAA called it "by far the most devastating flood in the Randall County area since meteorological 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 this creek has rarely seen so much water trying to find its way out of the canyon and it was a real major flood. Debris was found as things drifted into the little creek there and the water was so high, the debris was found in the trees, so that's very significant," Dr Matney said.

Dr Matney added that the scale of the devastation was unlike anything he had seen.

45 years since the canyon flood that left a path of destruction over Memorial Day weekend (4)

“Once we found out what was going on down there, of course, the news section was on the air with periodic reports. We were giving weather reports, weather reports and so the whole station came together because that was one of the most important events, news events, even though it was about the weather, it was a big news event. And so, everybody so on guard, and everybody wanted to get information in the air to stop people from going down there. We didn't think it would be that serious at first, but when it just didn't move and it went on and on and on, and then when we got reports, we realized that we had, in many ways, a tragic situation there."

In the 45 years since the devastating flood, improvements have been made to Palo Duro Canyon.

“In 2010, we made a small reservation in our park, if you will. We put the bridge crossings that you can see at the bottom of the canyon. Before the roadway went down to the bottom of the creek and then came back out and that apparently caused a lot of problems when the river dropped and flowed there. So today having those bridge crossings, even though they can flood, it can really help to have an elevated way to cross the river there, and even on a daily visit here, it makes the canyon a lot safer," he said. Kliman.

And furthermore, how severe weather warnings are sent.

“Technology has improved significantly to get our message out as I mentioned. Flood warnings appear on everyone's cell phones, especially if they are more important or catastrophic. Simple detection using radar technology has improved a lot since 1978, so we're able to hone in on those areas better and get the message that significant flooding is happening,” Culin said.

45 years since the canyon flood that left a path of destruction over Memorial Day weekend (5)

Kliemann added that the response today would be very different from 1978.

“This is a bit different … if we had this unprecedented flood again what would our response be. I think today, we'd really like to make sure that message is clear," Kliemann said.

Kliemann said of the fact that the flood of the Gorge was, shows the power of water.

45 years since the canyon flood that left a path of destruction over Memorial Day weekend (6)

"It really shows that our entire canyon was carved by water and will continue to erode as time goes on, with the forces of water and wind coming down here," Kliemann said.

Dr. Matney added that the Canyon flood is a good example of what television and radio can do in emergencies to provide people with the information they need to stay safe.

"This shows that things can happen and you have to watch it, and people actually turned on their TVs and listened to the weather broadcasters because they want to know ... it's really a good example of what TV and radio can do in emergency situations to give people the information they need to stay safe. So I think anybody in meteorology or the news department just needs to realize how important news reporting and accurate reporting is to the safety of people in their viewing area,” Dr Matney said.

Kliemann added that it's always important to be prepared when heading to Palo Duro Canyon and keep an eye on the weather as you and your family plan to head to the canyon.

"We don't want people you know to prepare for the worst, per se, when they come here, but we want them to be prepared in case something happens," Kliman said.

For the newestyellow newsand local updates, check me outMyHighPlains.comand tune in to KAMR Local 4 News at 5:00, 6:00 and 10:00 p.m. and Fox 14 News at 9:00 p.m. CST.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Ms. Lucile Johns

Last Updated: 05/15/2023

Views: 5267

Rating: 4 / 5 (61 voted)

Reviews: 84% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Ms. Lucile Johns

Birthday: 1999-11-16

Address: Suite 237 56046 Walsh Coves, West Enid, VT 46557

Phone: +59115435987187

Job: Education Supervisor

Hobby: Genealogy, Stone skipping, Skydiving, Nordic skating, Couponing, Coloring, Gardening

Introduction: My name is Ms. Lucile Johns, I am a successful, friendly, friendly, homely, adventurous, handsome, delightful person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.