Travel

Benches, Trees, Caves Provide Respite in Arizona Flood

by Felicia Fonseca and Alina Hartounian
Friday Jul 13, 2018
One of five waterfalls on Havasu Creek as its waters tumble 210 feet on the Havasupai Tribe's reservation in a southeastern branch of the Grand Canyon near Supai, Ariz.
One of five waterfalls on Havasu Creek as its waters tumble 210 feet on the Havasupai Tribe's reservation in a southeastern branch of the Grand Canyon near Supai, Ariz.  (Source:AP Photo/Bob Daugherty)

Benji Xie stood beside a trail in an Arizona canyon, his camera fixed on a waterfall cascading into a blue-green pool where people swam beneath a double rainbow.

A few hours later, the weather took a drastic turn.

Wind started blowing through the trees and sent dirt swirling deep in the gorge off the Grand Canyon. Rain came down in sheets.

Soon, the popular campground on the Havasupai reservation was inundated with water rising high above the shallow creek that runs through it.

Water sloshed up around tents, burying some in dirt. Tourists scrambled to benches, trees and caves as they sought higher ground. Some were stranded on newly formed islands, Xie said.

The waterfall that Xie photographed earlier looked much different.

"Everything is brown and muddy now," Xie, a 25-year-old Seattle resident, said Thursday while awaiting his turn to be flown out.

The heavy flooding in two separate events Wednesday evening and before dawn Thursday forced the evacuation of about 200 tourists. Some had only their swim suits on and had to abandon their camping gear.

All the tourists were accounted for and no one was seriously injured, tribal spokeswoman Abbie Fink said.

The tribe used ATVs, rope and manpower to get the tourists from the campground below the village of Supai to a school, where they spent the night and were given food and supplies.

A helicopter flew out about five tourists at a time.

Supai Village saw minor flooding in and around tribal buildings.

Crews will start assessing the damage Friday to determine when it's safe for tourists to return, Fink said. The canyon and the road leading to a parking lot above it will be closed to visitors for at least a week, she said.

During monsoon season, rain can fall heavy and fast. Flood waters often rush unexpectedly through normally dry canyons and washes, sometimes with tragic consequences.

Ten members of an Arizona family were killed last July when a torrent of rain water rushed through a swimming hole in a canyon northeast of Phoenix. In another incident, seven people died at Utah's Zion National Park in September 2015 when they were trapped in a flash flood while hiking at a popular slot canyon.

The Havasupai reservation lies within a steep-walled canyon that's relatively flat at the bottom, said Brian Klimowski of the National Weather Service in Flagstaff.

"When the water rises, it can engulf a significant part of the canyon area, and that's what happened down in the campground," he said.

A tribal website alerts visitors to be aware of monsoon season and an expected uptick in rain this year.

The canyon is accessible only by foot, helicopter or mule ride, making it crucial to have as much of a heads-up as possible when floods are approaching so people can seek higher ground.

Klimowski said the agency contacted the tribe around 6:30 p.m. Wednesday with a flood advisory for the area. The first hard rain hit about 45 minutes later. A gauge downstream of the Colorado River, which flows through the Grand Canyon, showed an eight-foot rise in the water level.

The flooding was minor compared to previous years. Still, it's a hit to tourism in a place that relies on visitors.

About 400 tribal members live in Supai. Many make a living by working in the area's lodge, cafe and small store, or packing camping gear onto the backs of mules headed up and down a winding trail.

Rather than panic, Xie said most of the campers were in a state of disbelief about what had happened. Still, he said he would not hesitate to return to the waterfalls.

"That was one of those places I would look on Google images while bored at work and say, 'How do I get here?'" Xie said.

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Hartounian reported from Phoenix.

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