Flash flood sends 200 tourists to high ground near Grand Canyon

This Thursday, July 12, 2018 photo released by Benji Xie shows a helicopter landing to rescue people from flooding on the Havasupai reservation in Supai, Ariz. Rescue workers were evacuating about 200 tourists Thursday who were caught in flash flooding at a popular campground on tribal land near the Grand Canyon where visitors go to see towering blue-green waterfalls. (Benji Xie via AP)

This Thursday, July 12, 2018 photo released by Benji Xie shows a helicopter landing to rescue people from flooding on the Havasupai reservation in Supai, Ariz. Rescue workers were evacuating about 200 tourists Thursday who were caught in flash flooding at a popular campground on tribal land near the Grand Canyon where visitors go to see towering blue-green waterfalls. (Benji Xie via AP)

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Tourists were evacuated from a campground on tribal land near waterfalls overflowing with muddy floodwaters. (Photos: Benjie Xie via AP)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Torrents of water rushed July 12 through an Arizona canyon famous for its towering blue-green waterfalls, sending tourists scrambling to benches, trees and caves as they sought higher ground.

Rescue workers evacuated most of the 200 tourists after two rounds of flooding hit the Havasupai reservation, deep in a gorge off the Grand Canyon.

All the tourists were accounted for and no one was seriously injured when heavy rain began falling Wednesday evening and before dawn Thursday, swelling a shallow creek that runs through a reservation campground, said tribal spokeswoman Abbie Fink.

Tourist Benji Xie said people were swimming at the base of waterfalls when the flash flooding struck. He and his friends ran up to a bathroom with other campers to wait out the rain.

“The sky opened up. Winds started blowing, sand was blowing everywhere and rain was coming down in sheets,” he told The Associated Press July 12.

Water sloshed up around people’s tents, and Xie said he his friends warned other campers to flee. Some were stranded on islands that formed in the water, while others climbed trees, stood on benches or took shelter in caves, he said.

The tribe used ATVs, rope and manpower to get dozens of tourists from the campground below the village of Supai to a school, where they spent the night July 11 and were given food and supplies.

A single helicopter flew about five tourists at a time out of the village to a parking lot at the head of an eight-mile trail to Supai, Fink said. Several were still waiting their turn early Thursday evening, she said.

Officials will start assessing the damage July 13 to determine when it’s safe for tourists to return. Fink said the reservation will be closed to visitors for at least a week.

Posts on social media showed muddy water roaring through the canyon that is prone to flooding.

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.

On Thursday, rather than panicking, 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 pristine waterfalls.

Tourism is the lifeblood of the tribe’s economy, with many residents making 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 an eight-mile trail. Spots in the campground sell out quickly every 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.

Brian Klimowski of the National Weather Service in Flagstaff said the agency contacted the tribe around 6:30 p.m. July 11 with a flood advisory for the area.

The hard rain hit about 45 minutes later and a stream gauge noted a four-foot rise in Havasu Creek, he said. Another gauge downstream of the Colorado River showed an eight-foot rise in water levels, he said. The creek rose again at 2 a.m. July 12.

In both cases, water receded within two hours, he said.

“That’s a steep-walled canyon with a relatively flat bottom on it,” he said. “When the water rises, it can engulf a significant part of the canyon area, and that’s what happened down in the campground.”

Reservations cancelled

Fink said 300 people had reservations for either the campground or the lodge in the next several days. Crews were assessing the damage to determine when it’s safe for visitors to return.

“Every day it’s closed, it’s another set of people impacted by it,” she said.

The tribe doesn’t allow day hikers, so visitors have to reserve overnight trips. The reservations fill up quickly.

Andrea Molina saw only two dates available until 2020 when she checked earlier this year. She and her partner booked a trip for July 13, rented camping gear and reserved a pack mule for the trip from Phoenix.

She was looking forward to the challenging 10-mile (16-kilometer) hike down a winding, dusty trail to the campgrounds on her 34th birthday. But she felt grateful she wasn’t amid flooding this week that sent tourists scrambling as a shallow creek rose several feet.

She said she won’t be able to recoup all the costs but will try next week to re-book.

“We’re just going to enjoy the day, maybe do a small hike and make the best out of it,” she said.

At the campground, footbridges collapsed and tents were buried in sand and debris strewn about as water rushed over the landscape. Christian Raftopol and the three others in his group planned to hike out at 3 a.m. July 12 and were packing when the rain started falling. They ducked into their tents, but he said the water levels rose quickly and he warned others.

He fled to a nearby restroom after pulling fellow campers from their tents. He thought they were close behind but saw them fall into the water after a footbridge broke and was swept away. They were able to trudge through to join him and later used headlights to hike to the tribal village, he said.

“It was furious,” the Mount Vernon, New York, resident said.

Raftopol said they tried to form a human chain to help other campers stuck on an island but couldn’t and advised them to go another direction. Meanwhile, he saw a man using a wooden pole to guide himself through the water to reach tourists farther down in the campground.

All but 17 of the tourists were able to get to the community center in Supai village and spent the night. The others left at sunrise after the water receded, Fink said.

The tribe opened a small store in the village for tourists and didn’t charge for food or water. Tourists and tribal members gave out socks and shoes, tourists said. A lodge on the way to the canyon offered free showers and breakfast to the evacuees.

U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs spokeswoman Nedra Darling said the agency hasn’t received a damage estimate but assisted in evacuating the tourists.

The canyon is accessible only by foot, helicopter or mule ride. About 400 tribal members live there year-round.

Eric Kremer was one of the last out Thursday and reveled in the experience from his home in Las Vegas on Friday after a shower, food and a beer.

“I never felt my life was threatened while I was there,” he said. “Obviously that’s in the control of Mother Nature. It wasn’t up to me.”

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