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Flood Spells Tragedy For Tunnel Dwellers

A storm cloud over the Las Vegas Valley in July 2015.
John Getchel/Flickr

A storm cloud over the Las Vegas Valley in July 2015.

Editor’s note: This interview originally aired in August 2016.

Beneath the casinos, beneath our homes, our streets, our parks. 

Beneath all of Las Vegas are some 200 miles of tunnels designed to sweep flood waters into Lake Mead.

In those tunnels, dozens, if not hundreds of homeless people, also live.

It rarely rains in Las Vegas, one of the driest places on the planet. But when it does, those tunnels can become death traps for those who live there.

That’s what happened in June during an unprecedented downpour. The Flood Control District said so much rain fell, at one point nearly 8,000 gallons of water per second were rushing through some flood-control channels. 

The Tropicana Detention Basin, which holds more than 16 million gallons, filled within 30 minutes.

So imagine living down there and being caught by the water. Many did get caught. Three of those people died.

One of those who survived talked to KNPR’s State of Nevada about his experience. Jazz has lived in the tunnels off and on for some 20 years. He was with his girlfriend Sharon, who died during that June 30 downpour:  

“Me and Sharon went to sleep. When I woke up, I heard somebody screaming and Sharon screaming at the same time. A little less than a foot of water hit us in our sleep.

We’ve done this a hundred times. We pretty much know what we have to do… to gather all our things and put them in shopping carts. I take them outside the tunnel and I put them on a tow chain.

I’m trying to grab her purse and our phones and get our bedding up. A friend of ours was with us and he was trying to get all his stuff out of there. What was unusual about this was when the water comes, it comes in waves. It doesn’t just fill up. It’s like a wave. A rush of water. When the second wave it us, it was up to my knees and I was like ‘WOW’ that’s unusual because it hit us real fast.

When the second wave came and hit us, it was up to my knees and Sharon is 5 foot 2. So, it was up to her thighs. I tell her to get out and start climbing out… I tell her to get out on the embankment and our friend Steve is running around trying to get all of his things.

I climb up on top of the embankment to help him get his bike up there. I couldn’t get his bike up. I ran back down to where we were at and that third wave came and hit me in the chest. I’m 6 foot tall and it hit me in the chest. And I turn around and Steve’s got his leg caught in a shopping cart and I’m trying to get his leg out and I see Sharon get washed away. So, I jump in after her. When I catch up to her, I try to pick her up. But I can’t lift her up. I'm trying to put her feet underneath her but the water is so strong.

I’ve seen nothing like it. In 20 years, I’ve never seen nothing like this. She could get up. So, I jumped in the water with her and I told her to sit on my lap.

We come up to the first set of rebar ladders and I tell her I’m going to try to grab it. We’re going about 35 miles an hour. This water is booking. I tried to grab to rebar ladder and it just rips my arm off. So from where we started to where it all ended was probably a mile.

I tell her to swim to the left because I’m trying to grab another ladder. We couldn’t grab that ladder. As we’re going around the corner, another guy that we know that is down there somebody threw him a life line but they just look at us. There was nothing they could do. I knew we were trouble when we were in the water.

I’ve stood up on the edge but to be in and feel the force of that current. It’s amazing.

The whole time I’m talking to her telling her what we’re going to do. Our last chance of getting out is a ramp that they bring the trucks down there to clean up the debris.

I told her, ‘When we get down to Juno’s spot, this guy who lives – we’re about a quarter mile from the tunnels at this point. We’re in the open wash. Our last chance was ramp. I told her to swim to the right. I said, “Once we get to the ramp, I want you to just start rolling to your right.’ That was the only thing I could think of. We were getting down by Juno’s spot. It’s a bridge. He lives underneath a bridge. And I tell her, ‘are you ready?’ and I let go of her and I said ‘go!’ and she just kept going.

I managed to get my feet underneath me and the water just washed me back into the current. I came to realize after I played it over in my head again there was no way – the water was so high – there was no way we could have touched the ground at the ramp. We were moving too fast. And that’s why she couldn't – that’s why she got swept away.”

When I got back out into the current, she was about 25 yards ahead of me and I remember she turns around and she’s looking at me. And… I’m trying to swim towards her and I can’t catch up with her. She’s moving.

At the end of the wash, we got this grate where this thing collects all this debris. And it goes underground from that point on. And I’m hoping that the gates are on or we’d be sucked underground.

When we hit the grates, the water was so strong it pushed me and her almost to the top. But there is all kinds of debris that’s hitting us, shopping carts and everything – anything you can think of is down there.

When I hit the grate, the water is so strong it just rips the clothes right off my body. When I find her, she’s on her back with her legs bent. I ask her what’s wrong she said ‘my legs caught.’ I’m reaching down there and I’m pulling on her leg and something is wrapped around it. She screams. Now, I don’t what do to. I don’t have a knife or nothing to cut whatever is wrapped around her leg. So I’m looking around this debris. I’m getting cut up. This water is just pushing us. It happened so fast.

I hank on her leg a couple of more times. I can’t find nothing to cut whatever is wrapped around her leg. And as I turn around, here comes this shopping cart. It’s a plastic shopping cart and it comes and hits her and flips on top of her like a lid.

I can’t get the shopping cart off her.

I’m doing everything I can.

I’m screaming for help because there’s a road right there. Nobody is doing nothing. I can’t get this cart off her.

The water starts rising. In a matter of seconds – minutes. All of the sudden, it’s overflowing the sides onto the streets. She’s covered up. I can’t do nothing… except… except yell for help. I managed to climb up on the fence line and crab walk all around to this hole in the fence. It’s about eight minutes that I’m think she was underwater.

Here comes another friend of mine from the neighborhood. He comes floating by with this look in his eye that he’s lost. I grab his arm and pull him out. And remember telling him, ‘Sharon’s in there bro!’ I just start crying and I’m screaming for help still because there’s an apartment complex nearby. Nobody is doing nothing. There’s all these people looking around, standing there but nobody is helping.

When fire and rescue showed up, it was about eight minutes. I’m telling them where she’s at. How long she’s been down there. I’m screaming at the top of my lungs. They put me in an ambulance. They take me to Valley Hospital. On the way there I’m asking them, ‘What’s the status? What’s happening?’ They said, ‘We got a report of man and a woman got saved.’ So, I’m thinking alright one dude and they got Sharon. They got her out.

I go to the hospital and it’s pretty much a blur after that. But as I leave the hospital, they give me a bus pass and I got back to the neighborhood and I run into a family member of Sharon’s. And I tell him exactly what happened and he looks at me and he goes, ‘Go find her.’ I got back down there. It’s 4 o’clock in the morning. This is 12 hours later.

I get little emotional here.

After digging through that debris, my hands were all cut up. I could dig no more. I needed to get a rake or a shovel or something.

The wash is 15 feet high maybe more the debris is like – it would fill up a dump truck easy.

I went back to the spot where we were living at and everything is gone. Our whole house is gone. With that much force, nothing could have survived.

That morning, I ended up going with some friends on a walk and we walk right by where the incident happened and I see the coroner’s office, fire and rescue and police there. So, I go up and tell them who I am and write a statement. The coroner came up to me and asked me what she was wearing. I described what she was wearing and she tells me that they found her."

Jazz told KNPR's State of Nevada is getting out of the tunnels. He is back to his spot now because he has nowhere else to go, but he said Sharon's death as the catalyst for him to find a new life.

Matt O’Brien is a journalist who documented the lives of people living in the tunnels in this book “Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas.”

“The tunnels are interesting. They can be quiet and almost boring for 90 percent of the time then the other 10 percent is chaos,” he said.

Besides flood waters washing away possessions and people, serious fights can break out between neighbors. People overdose on drugs but their friends don’t call police for fear they might get in trouble themselves.

O’Brien said people stay because, like Jazz, they have nowhere else to go.

“This is their home. This is their last place to live. They have nowhere else to go.”

And so even when the devastating floods wiped out everything they owned in June, people went back to their ‘spot,’ he said.

“Majority of people lost everything, but they’re rebuilding their camp and moving right back in.”

O’Brien walks the tunnels a couple of times a month, bringing water, supplies and even mail from family and friends because obviously people living there don’t have a mailing address. He’ll bring down social workers or people from charities trying to get people out of the tunnels.

However, he said it can be a difficult transition from tunnel life to a house or apartment. People have to want to not only deal with their drug or alcohol addictions but with the underlying trauma, tragedy or difficulty that often times led them to substance abuse. 

Matt O'Brien, author, "Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas" and founder, Shine a Light; Jazz, homeless man

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.