Many changes have been made since Tucson’s worst rainstorm ever in 1983

Published: Sep. 29, 2023 at 8:16 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) - This week marks 40 years since Tucson and much of Arizona suffered the worst rainstorm in the state’s history.

Tropical Storm Octave dumped eight inches of rain in Tucson from September 27 to October 2, 1983.

All bridges closed, roads were impassable, the heavy rains washed away the banks of the Rillito and Santa Cruz Rivers, causing property damage and several bridges were washed away by waters that sometimes rose to eight feet deep.

“Every time it clouds up, do you think of ‘83, I asked Chuck Huckelberry, who was the Transportation Director for Pima County in 1983. “Just about,” he said, “I worry about it significantly.”

It was the first time Tucson had faced anything like this and was unprepared.

“In the 1980′s, we still had a bunch of bailey bridges, which are one lane bridges which had no foundation, so a lot of them washed out,” Huckelberry said. “We don’t have any more of them now.”

The county doesn’t have any more of them because the floods of ‘83 drove home a valuable lesson. The county was vulnerable to a 100-year flood and this one was a wake up call.

The infrastructure needed a complete overhaul, according to Huckelberry’s assistant in ‘83, John Bernal.

“We had certain values we thought represented a 100-year flood, but we went way past that in ‘83,” he said. “So we had to recalculate everything.”

They had to recalculate because under their old standards, Marana was underwater, people were sitting on their rooftops, and the banks of the rivers washed away, allowing water to pour into Marana and widen the banks of the Rillito by another 100 feet.

That recalculation led the county to begin a very expensive and long process to shore up the banks to keep the water from eroding them. “One of the things that we did, and continue to do, is to put in soil cement bank stabilization,” Huckelberry said. “So we shored up the bridges and all the banks, put in soil cement and pretty much solved the problem.”

And, in part, solving that problem led to another way to protect the banks, The Loop, a bike path that now extends 120 miles around Tucson and has gained international renown.

The idea was hatched to ensure the banks have another layer of protection and don’t wash away.

“Flood protection is exactly what led to the loop, absolutely,” Bernal said. “Without the flood protection, we’d be just adding a path along the river that would get wiped out, so weren’t going to do that you know.”

When construction, bridge, or road projects are built in Tucson, they have the 1983 floods at the top of mind.

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