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Sept. 25, 1997: Nora unleashes dozens of raindrops

Sept. 25, 1997: Nora unleashes dozens of raindrops

Our introduction to Hurricane Nora came on Sept. 22, 1997, with an Associated Press story headlined "Nora speeds north to Baja, Mexico warns tiny villages." It detailed the havoc the storm was bestowing all along the Mexican coast.

Local TV weather reports began to follow it closely and within three days, Southern Arizona — and the state — began gearing up for what might be heavy rainfall and flooding that could rival the area's 1983 and '93 floods. The Star joined with extensive coverage and multiple stories on Sept. 25.

Sept. 25: Flood-wary Arizonans fill sandbags, wait

Evacuations started yesterday in Yuma and western Pima counties where the brunt of rain from Hurricane Nora was expected.

But people throughout Arizona watched with growing unease yesterday as the sky turned leaden with gray clouds.

Residents in Marana — which were among the hardest hit in the 1983 and 1993 floods — and Graham and Greenlee counties prepared for rising waters by filling sandbags.

The Tohono O'odham Nation evacuated more than two dozen families in isolated villages on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border yesterday, and canceled classes for today and tomorrow in all reservation schools.

The preparations were in contrast to the 1983 flood, when National Guard helicopters had to drop off food and blankets to people stranded in at least 10 isolated villages.

Locally, the Tucson/Pima County Office of Emergency Management was flooded with telephone calls. Residents in flood-prone areas cleared the shelves of sandbags in preparation.

In Tucson's Tanque Verde Valley, which found itself cut off from the rest of the city for days during the 1993 flood, Tanque Verde School District prepared Emily Gray Junior High School to serve as an emergency site for the area in case people need to evacuate.

In Yuma County, where Gov. Jane Hull declared a state of emergency, residents waited in a line of cars and trucks several blocks long to get sandbags filled by firefighters and other volunteers.

Sept. 26: Nora unleashes dozens of raindrops.

Hurricane Nora proved to be a breeze for most of Arizona, but authorities called it a good dry run for the especially wet winter predicted.

"This is the beginning," said Mike Walsh, a Tucson/Pima County Office of Emergency Management coordinator.

"They have anticipated a very active winter storm season based on the El Niño, so logic and prudence would dictate that those people who have taken precautions already should maintain what they've done," he said.

El Niño is a periodic warming of surface waters off the west coast of equatorial South America. It disrupts the climate worldwide and has been linked to increased winter rainfall in the Southwest.

Yesterday was the first time this week Walsh's telephone wasn't swamped with calls from citizens worried about flooding. "The forecast at the beginning of the week was fairly grim — we were looking at 6 inches of rain in 48 hours," Walsh said.

"As the week progressed and the National Weather Service was able to get a better look at where the storm was going and its intensity," Walsh said.

"Considering the uncertainty with the track of a tropical storm like this, it's not a bad idea at all (to take precautions)," National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Meyer said in Tucson.

"It's a good thing to get people's awareness up. We didn't get much out of this at all, but people who were just a little to our west got a whole lot," Meyer said, explaining that the storm's punch stayed "pretty tightly packed around the center" once Nora hit land.

Nora dumped nearly 3 inches — a year's normal rainfall — of rain on Yuma and forced precautionary evacuations in parts of the Tohono O'odham Nation.

Sept. 26: We got sandbagged

The Star staff and local communications executive Rick Kaneen had some fun once the danger had passed.

The sandbag panic is over. For Tucson, Nora turned out to be a wimpy acronym — NORA — Not On Radar Anymore. It's the first wicked spinoff from what may turn out to be El None-yo.

Herewith, as a public service, we present our Top 10 list of things you can do with your surplus sandbags.

10. They make nifty filters for CAP water.

9. Paint them orange and use them as jack-o-lanterns.

8. Re-cover them in a trendy fabric and market them as the latest in aerobic step equipment.

7. Stack them up next to your office desk and start a militia movement.

6. Dump the sand out in your living room and have a beach party.

5. Stick candles in them and call them "lumpy luminarias."

4. Sell them to the city of Tucson as "instant speed humps."

3. Plaster one with mayo and American cheese and call it the "Really Big King."

2. Use them to fortify the porous offensive line of the UA football team.

1. Fill them with dry straw, draw faces on them and start your own incorporation movement.

Community members then squabbled and groused on the editorial pages about whether the media had sensationalized a non-event or whether the town should just be thankful Nora, which did plenty of damage elsewhere, passed us by.

The Star's editorial on Sept. 27 kept it all in perspective:

We survived Nora

This must be the definition of a "dry run."

Hurricane Nora headed north from Baja California, weakened into a tropical storm and kept heading north. She brought clouds but no rain to a Tucson metropolitan area that was stocked up and sandbagged for the worst.

There is no shame in being over-prepared.

You can snicker at your neighbors who actually stacked sandbags along the edges of their property. But they would have had the last laugh if Nora had remained a hurricane and had followed the track originally predicted by the National Weather Service.

One of the things we tend to forget here in Tucson, where hurricanes are a rarity, is that predictions about hurricanes are often wrong. Storms expected to make landfall in Miami sometimes end up in Charlotte, North Carolina — or just head out to sea.

And a hurricane in a desert can be a calamitous thing. The geology hereabouts has developed to handle long periods of dry and brief periods of wet. Days of long soaking rains that fill washes and rivers to overflowing can cause significant damage.

What was missing in most of the warnings issued in advance of Nora was some sense of our uniqueness. The warnings weren't for everyone, but residents of flood-prone areas truly needed to worry and to prepare for the worst. County and municipal workers needed to be ready to close off streets and bridges and to plan provision of services to those cut off by the watercourses.

And we should all remain prepared. The forecasters could be wrong again, but they could be right.

We may all feel a bit like Chicken Little today. The sky didn't fall and neither did the rain.

But it's better to feel foolish than to be unprepared.

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