PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- The problems began with a series of storms over ten days starting February 13, 1980. There wasn’t a lot of rain in the Valley, but there were reports of more than 10 inches of rain on the watershed. Also, after decades with no water in the river, a wet winter had left the Salt River reservoirs near capacity. There were even concerns that the dams could fail. Governor Bruce Babbitt warned up to 200,000 Valley residents they might have to evacuate.


The floodgates were opened. To stay ahead of the rising water, 170,000 cubic feet per second of water was released into the Salt River channel. That’s double the average rate of water flowing over Niagara Falls.

Roosevelt Dam in February of 1980: Arizona State Library

Roosevelt Dam in February of 1980: Arizona State Library

All but two of the bridged crossings of the Salt River were swept away or closed out of fear they would fail. There were only two ways for cars to get across: At Mill Avenue in Tempe and Central Avenue in Phoenix. I-10, it was closed, too. The train tracks in Tempe stood the test as well.

The traffic jams were immense. Imagine delays of six to eight hours. Something had to be done. People had to get to work from the East Valley to Phoenix. Here's a view of Mill Avenue.

Mill Avenue during 1980 flood in Salt River: Arizona Department of Transportation

It was taking commuters most of the day to get to work.

Enters Amtrak. Temporary service was established between downtown Phoenix and Mesa. One train went back and forth from the early morning hours until evening. Initially, it was dubbed the “Hattie Express” after Governor Babbitt’s wife.

Governor Bruce Babbitt's wife Hattie with namesake Amtrak train:  ADOT

Governor Bruce Babbitt's wife Hattie with namesake Amtrak train:  ADOT

But soon, it was known as the “Sardine Express” because it was so crowded. It ran for only ten days until some of the crossings were fixed, and bridges re-opened.

Lines for the "Hattie B"

The lines were long to catch a train ride into Phoenix during the February, 1980 flood.

In retrospect, the bridges failed because they were built during a time there was never any water in the Salt River. We’re talking before Tempe Town Lake, too. No one ever thought there would be a need to engineer for so much water. The bridges were rebuilt with the new standards in mind, and they’ve held up to this day. Folks also got excited about train service between the East Valley and downtown Phoenix. But as we know, that didn’t happen for nearly 30 years before the light rail became a reality in the Valley.

3TV Chief Meteorologist Royal Norman always has his eye on the radar and how weather conditions might affect the people of Arizona.  He also loves telling those quintessential stories that are uniquely Arizona. With 35 years of experience forecasting weather and his vast knowledge of Arizona and its micro climates, Royal is an Arizona Weather Authority. 

Copyright 2020 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.


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