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The flood came without warning. Perhaps it was runoff from nearby Mount Charleston, or buildup from a rare day of desert rain. A wall of water, head-high, rushed through one of the storm tunnels that run beneath Las Vegas. Seconds later, everything Richard Ethridge and Cynthia Goodwin owned was swept away. As had been the case before, and will almost certainly be the case again, the married couple barely made it out alive.
"I almost lost her," Mr. Ethridge, 39, says, his wife sitting beside him on a sheet of foam bedding, their subterranean home lit only by a couple of candles in broken glass jars. "She was in another tunnel holding on to her bike. The water was so strong it ripped the front tire off the bike."
The Las Vegas Boulevard strip is perhaps the glitziest and most distinctive stretch of real estate in the world, synonymous with blinding neon lights and gaudy excess. It regularly draws millions of tourists, big-name celebrities and massive conventions.
But the city around the strip has the fourth-highest homelessness rate and the highest home foreclosure rate of any big city in the country. As a result, many of its estimated 12,000 homeless people have built makeshift shelters in the city's 480 kilometres of underground storm tunnels. The result is a subtropolis where the poorest and most maligned can escape the desert heat and cold, even as they risk disease and drowning.