Saturday, May 21, 2011

The first river forecaster I met

I'm sure the first river forecaster I met was Dallas Reigle, the Hydrologist for Salt River Project, the main water supplier for Phoenix, Arizona. I was a fresh faced grad student at University of Arizona in the hydrology department. He came in as a guest lecturer once a year as a special treat to the students and as a favor to the department. I remember sitting at cold stone-top benches in a darkened room as he showed the choicest clips of video from the 1993 floods. 

As much as it sounded like a character in a Dickens novel about Western Water, that really was his name. Dallas Glen Reigle... I never knew his middle name until I googled him- it makes him sound like a Gran Reserve limited batch of whiskey. Actually, Dallas Glen Reigle the Second (as if one wasn't enough). And he smoked a cigar a day. 

Arizona had been bopping along for a couple decades and then when the 1993 floods hit, the hydrologists were like "We're going to need a bigger chart!!!" It was unlike anything they'd seen before, major bridges getting washed away, reservoirs raging full blast. 

You must understand that this was in the days before Youtube. Now you can see anything you could ever want on the Web. Cats making funny faces, yeah the Internet has that. Dating sites for Ayn Rand fans, there's probably a couple to pick from. Back in the 1990s, however, the best you could do was order some tapes from your local television studio. 

But this was company footage he was showing. The hydrologists flew around the watershed in a helicopter, rapidly finding where the river was getting out of control. Can you think of the last time your work said to you, "We need your help, get to the helicopter!" Dallas peppered the video's narration with his own booming drawl that Westerners would call Southern and Southerners would call Western. At one point he said that a swing in the camera angle was because someone threw up in the helicopter as it swirled over the gushing spillways. Can you think of the last time someone threw up on you in a helicopter in the name of work (that didn't involve guns and missiles)? If you can, please message me. 

Roosevelt lake from the air. Biblical flood coming in from upper left. Note construction on right. Note water seeping through the face of the dam. Bad timing for all this to come together, I reckon. 

The video wasn't all disaster porn. 1993 was also the year that they had been finishing years of improvements to the main reservoir. Lots of things still under construction got ruined. We learned about cofferdams and other technical details... What went wrong, what went well, etc. It was a classroom in an Engineering college after all. 

His sense of humor was purely and infinitely dry. He only laughed at inappropriate times. In the middle of his slides he showed a photo of a clown with a frown face. It wasn't a happy clown with a frown, it was a run-down dirty clown that looked disoriented. Dallas said "What was that? Who put that in there? gah. Next slide please".... Years later I tried the same trick with a group of 2nd graders. It had about the opposite effect that I intended, anarchy broke out and it didn't settle down until I left.  

There in that classroom, I was pie-eyed. That was it, there was no turning back, I wanted to be that guy. 

1 comment:

  1. hey Tom,

    Cool article. Last time someone threw up on me in a helicopter was in 2001. I was doing aerial survey work in Japan and the client project manager/translator wanted to come along for a joyride.

    And to put it in perspective, Japanese breakfast consists of things like seaweed, pickles...