These are my stories as a volunteer member of the Sheriff's Search & Rescue team in Coconino County, Arizona. I'll share what it's like to go from a beginner with a lot to learn to an experienced and, hopefully, valuable member of the team, as well as the missions, trainings, and other activities along the way.
About Coconino County
About Coconino County
Encompassing 18,661 square miles, Coconino County, Arizona, is the second largest county in the U.S. but one of the least populated. Our county includes Grand Canyon National Park, the Navajo, Havasupai, Hualapai and Hopi Indian Reservations, and the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the world. Elevations range from 2,000 feet above sea level along the Colorado River to 12,633 feet at the summit of Mt. Humphreys in Flagstaff.
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.
Thanks for the post, Deb. I found it interesting to read your comments about how well the rescue teams worked together. Recently I saw a SAR effort for a young boy near Mt. St. Helens and was amazed at how the multiple agencies and organizations harmonized. They each had different jobs to do, different responsibilities, and they did them with coordination.
Given that most of them were not paid, it was truly an uplifting thing to see. Given that I work day-to-day with project teams that do not always harmonize, your description is even more surprising.
Most of the time the SAR stories say something brief about the SAR teams, like "50 volunteers helped with the search", so I'm glad that you mentioned the coordination and cooperation.
Wow, what a story! Just a point of clarification...the Redlands Dam breached between 6:00 AM and 6:30 AM Sunday. The campground flooded up to 5 hours before that. So, the first flooding wasn't caused by the breached dam as has been reported in almost all news stories. The first flooding was caused by as much as 3.50 inches of rain that fell on the eastern side of the Cataract drainage basin below Redlands Dam Saturday afternoon.
Yes, I've seen and read a number of news reports that were off, to say the least. One of the most notable was a Fox newscast that stated, "The Grand Canyon will be closed for four weeks following extensive damage caused by flash-flooding. 173 people were rescued from the canyon by helicopter." (It was 406 people.) So if the National Park suddenly sees a marked decrease in visitation, they can thank Fox. Oh, and the Sheriff's Office here in Flagstaff had to set up a call center, because at least one news station showed a picture of Glenn Canyon Dam and reported that a dam break had flooded the Canyon! People were calling, freaking out because family members were on the river.
I put a link to your blog on http://www.havasupaiflood.com .
You might be interested in seeing some of the other stories.
Thanks, Kaggie, for letting me (us) know about that site. Really interesting first-hand accounts and photos!
Thanks for all of your efforts along with the hundreds of others! We (the evacuees) really appreciate your time and help!
I am a guide for AOA Tours out of Scottsdale and I was minding our (we thought) permanent base camp in the campground. I was the last out of both the campground and the village (of the non-natives) because I was also helping the Supai Rangers with the evacuation. I thought it was a wonderful experience and I wouldn't take back any of it. I cannot wait to get back in and see scale of what happened in the entire canyon, knowing that it will soon be a beautiful place and will also have many new places and features to explore! Because I was last out, I had plenty of time to people watch, and I would like to second what you said about the campers. Despite scattered grumbling when we found out we had to spend Sunday night in the village, everybody was helping everyone else and the morale of the entire group was very high throughout. It was an atmosphere of friendship and community, even with the normally reserved Natives who opened up their homes and arms to us. I can only imagine that the beauty of the valley, along with the general attitudes of people who enjoy camping, and the fact that we were in a remote spot, not in the midst of a crumbling society like Katrina made this an overall positive experience in my mind. I'm sure the others would agree! BTW - the fellow who was with the stranded dog was a Katrina survivor.
I hope that everyone reading will keep the Supai in their thoughts as they go through an extensive rebuild of the entire canyon. As the legend goes, they are the guardians of the waterfall. They are able to make a living after a long and difficult past through tourism. This canyon is truly one of the most beautiful places on our planet. We all need to be reminded of the power of Mother Nature to destroy as well as rebuild and work together, as we did during the evacuation, to enhance our relationship with Her rather than our current path of destruction, greed, and selfishness. This is an adequate example of the powers that people are also capable of.
I hope to be back in the canyon as soon as it is opened to outsiders. My company has petitioned the tribe for an exception to go and recover whatever we can and help out. I think it won't be that long before tourists can return to the beauty of the canyon, and I am sure it will be even better than before, just different.
Thanks again for your selflessness!
Arizona Outback Adventures Guide (AOA)
please e-mail information on the rebuilding efforts for Havasupai, i am very interested in volunteering.
So far, I've only gotten information on making a financial donation to the Havasupai tribe but no volunteer opportunities. The information on making a contribution can be found at http://www.indianz.com/News/2008/010499.asp. If I find anything about volunteering TIME and effort, I'll certainly post it here.
I've emailed the Havasupai tribe directly, asking about volunteer opportunities to help clean up their canyon. I'll pass along the information here if I get a response.
Dont bother sending donations. The tribe is using funds to "restore" the falls with plastic sand bags, plastic tarps, and wire cribbing. They are using bulldozers to "reshape" the land to fit their ideas. The place is damaged, and with the help of the tribe, will be soon ruined. Save your money and time. Stay away.
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