August 18, 2008
Grand Canyon / Havasupai Flood
What a stark contrast, going from the scene of rescue efforts at Havasupai to this little office at the apartment complex where I work two days a week. I've gone from interviewing people who'd scrambled for their lives when a wall of water came rumbling through the narrow canyon to writing up maintenance work orders for tenants with clogged toilets. The people who were rescued, many of whom had lost everything but the clothes on their backs, and some of those in just bathing suits and no shoes, were in good spirits, while today I've dealt with tenants who are cranky because we haven't been quick enough in replacing window blinds they broke. Wow. What a contrast indeed.
The flooding in Havasu Canyon began on Saturay afternoon, August 16th, and was still occurring on Monday the 18th. Havasu is a side canyon of the Grand Canyon, located about 30 miles west of the South Rim. Havasu Canyon is part of the Havasupai Indian reservation, with the small village of Supai at the bottom. The village is accessible only by helicopter or an 8-mile hiking and pack-mule trail. About 450 members of the tribe out of roughly 650 live in Supai, and their primary source of income is tourist dollars from those who visit the incredibly beautiful waterfalls and pools about two miles down canyon from the village. At this time of year, a weekend can see hundreds of visitors, as was the case this past weekend when monsoon rains created flash-flooding, which in turn breached an earthen dam near Williams, Arizona, exacerbating already dangerous conditions in Havasu. The usually blue-green water was running brown with mud, laden with debris and boulders.
Our unit was called out on Sunday morning, August 17th, along with members of the Mohave County Search & Rescue team, the National Guard, the National Park Service, members of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Department of Public Safety, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and probably others I'm not aware of.
Though there are certainly common elements, everyone involved in the flood has a unique story, from the more than 400 tourists and Supai residents rescued by helicopter, to those that flew those helicopters, to both paid and volunteer rescue personnel in and on the rim of the canyon. During my interviews, which were intended to document everyone who came out of the canyon and find out if anyone in their party was missing or if they'd seen anyone injured or swept off by the flood, I heard many of those stories.
Most told of being suddenly awakened in the middle of the night by the loud rumble of water, falling rocks, and people yelling. One man told me three kids had clung to a tree for hours until they were rescued. A couple and their dog were stranded on a rock in the middle of the flood. Sixteen people from a river trip, who had stopped at the confluence of Havasu Creek and the Colorado River, had to be short-hauled off a cliff after their boats were washed away and they'd had to quickly climb to avoid the same fate. I heard that two houses in Supai were lost.
For hours, I took names, addresses, dates of birth and other information from evacuees, often waiting while they practically inhaled some food before they'd answer my next question. The Salvation Army provided food and drinks to the hungry and parched people who were airlifted out of the canyon, as well as to those of us working the evacuation.
One thing I noted as I watched the activity around me at the "Hilltop Helispot" location on the rim of Havasu Canyon, where evacuees were first "processed" after coming off the helicopters, is that one could not differentiate between those who were paid personnel and who were volunteers. All were working with enthusiasm, and even waiting with good spirits between assigned tasks. And when given a new task, each person jumped to work. While there are always opportunities to learn and improve, I was really impressed with the effort and the coordination between units, and by how well everyone worked together. Overall, it was a very successful effort, and, as far as we know, there was no loss of life as a result of the flood.
Air and ground searches are ongoing, however, to be sure. And, as of Tuesday morning, I heard that residents of Supai who'd been evacuated were being allowed to return to their village, which has sustained considerable damage. The campground has apparently been wiped out. My husband and I are going to look into how we might go about volunteering in the rebuilding efforts, and I'll let you know what I find out.
Read the latest article in the Arizona Daily Sun here.