Exploring the history of Phoenix, Arizona and a little bit of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California.

Living through the 100-year flood in Tempe, Arizona 1980


When I moved to Phoenix in 1977, I discovered that it had a flooding problem. Of course, since it's a city in the desert, I assumed that flooding would be the last thing that I would have to worry about, and instead I thought of sunstroke, crawling across the desert saying "water... water..." I never expected Phoenix to flood, but it did. The streets flooded, parking lots flooded. And what really surprised me is that when water was released into the dry area called "the Salt River", it would knock down the bridges. I remember that it was called the 100-year flood.

If you saw one of the 100-year floods, and there were several, including a very bad one in the 1960s, you probably wondered what they were talking about. I even heard about a 500-year flood. And from what I can tell, it's what they call the statistical probability of such a flood happening. In other words, they hadn't counted on a flood like that, which hit several times in a couple of decades.

My first year at ASU I had an apartment in Phoenix, so I had to cross the Salt River. After living through the traffic jams created by the 100-year flood in 1980, I moved to Tempe in 1981, and got a little apartment there. And I only did it because of the fear of another 100-year flood, which I figured would be a yearly occurrence.

This sort of thing really caught Phoenix off-guard many times. The engineering to control all of this has gotten much better in the last 30+ years and now (hopefully) it's all just ancient history.

The 1965 flood. Not sure if this was an 100-year flood, or a 500-year flood?

If you cross the Salt River now on Mill Avenue, you'll see two bridges, one going south and one going north. The original Mill Avenue Bridge was built in 1931. In 1980, that one only went south. To go north, (yes, I'm serious here) you drove down into the river bed. I drove it many times - it was just like a regular road (with traffic lights and everything) except that it was on the river bed, so when water had to be released from the dams, it washed away. And they built it again. And again, and again.

In the 1990s they built another bridge to replace the silly idea of having a road down in the river bed. If you've been across that bridge you can see that they did a very nice job of complimenting the 1931 bridge - it's not an exact match, and it's not supposed to be, but it has a nice feel to it. And mostly, it's not a road down in a river bed!

Unlike most people I know, I've never spent much time in traffic. Because of the congestion during the 1980 flood, a free shuttle was made available (it was at the State Capitol) and I would take that to Tempe. I remember seeing the cars backed up for miles coming from Phoenix. I'd like to think that they were more hopeful than I was. And going the other way, the cars backed up, sitting still, all of the way around the Apache curve. I remember people selling sodas out of coolers there to the people sitting in their cars. I spent a lot of time sitting on the lawn near Gammage watching the cars. I had a lot of leisure time in those days!

Phoenix has had a history of terrible flooding problems, most of which have been resolved in the last couple of decades. Nowadays when I talk about this, it's hard to believe, but it really happened. And it's a testament to the hard work of the engineers who have fixed this that people think I'm making this up. But I saw this, and it was awful.


This post was written by special request from my Patreon patron Molly Warring. Thank you, Molly!