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.
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.
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.
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.
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.