Hundreds Flee Village in Arizona Canyon Hit by Flood

August 20, 2008

More than 250 residents and tourists have evacuated an American Indian village in a remote, scenic offshoot of the Grand Canyon after weekend flooding that wrecked trails and nearly washed away some river rafters in the rugged gorge.

Helicopters on Aug. 18, 2008, ferried 85 people out of the Havasupai tribal village of Supai, about 2,300 feet below the canyon rim, said Gerry Blair, a spokesman for the Coconino County Sheriff’s Department. Another 170 people had been evacuated from Supai Canyon on August 17.

Village residents asked for extra supplies, but Blair said authorities weren’t sure yet what to deliver. It’s unclear how much Supai will need because many people are choosing to leave the village, and authorities don’t know how long it will take to reopen hiking trails to the public.

“There’s nobody down there in dire straits because they don’t have any food or water right now,” he said.

A year-round home to about 400 tribe members, Supai is extremely remote. It’s an 8-mile hike from the nearest parking lot, dropping down a winding canyon trail.

It’s the only U.S. community where the mail is delivered by mule. The area is popular with hikers for its towering blue-green waterfalls downstream from the village.

Gov. Janet Napolitano toured the flood damage and met with Havasupai leaders. She said afterward that crews must restore the pack trail used to deliver mail, food and other supplies. Part of the trail is still underwater, she said.

Havasupai Vice Chairman Matthew Putesoi declined to comment until the tribe checks the extent of the damage to the village.

Thunderstorms dumped 3 to 6 inches of rain on Aug. 15 and 16, 2008, in northern Arizona and about 2 inches more on Aug. 17. In Supai Canyon, the deluge was worsened by the breach of a small earthen dam upstream that holds water for livestock.

The dam isn’t a “huge, significant” structure, and its rupture was only one factor in the flooding, Blair said.

Some visitors were stranded over the weekend as rushing water swept away rafts, backpacks, food and other supplies.

“It was definitely frightening, and there was a lot of, ‘Whoa, what are we going to do next and what’s the morning going to bring?'” said Mimi Mills, 42, who was stranded with 15 other river runners on Aug. 16 after a flash flood washed away their rafts.

Mills said the group took shelter overnight under an overhang but had to scramble up a cliff when another flash flood occurred in the middle of the night.

“I woke up to people yelling, ‘We’ve got to get out of here!'” she said. “We booked it up a cliff in 10 seconds, and we just saw this massive rush of water rage down the creek side.”

Mills was among about 35 evacuees who spent the night of August 17 night at a shelter in Peach Springs, about 65 miles southwest of Supai.

Ferdinand Rivera, who was visiting the canyon with friends, awoke around midnight Saturday to the voices of other campers warning of rising flood waters approaching his tent.

Within 10 minutes, he said, he gathered his tent and belongings and sought higher ground. But with a nearby bridge and trails washed out, he said, “there was no way of hiking back; there was no way of getting out.”

With his gear in tow, he hiked about 2 miles across rugged ground to the village, where he was evacuated by helicopter.

Rescuers worked throughout Sunday to locate campers and Supai residents and evacuate them to the top of the canyon if they wished. Blair said tourists were not being allowed back into the canyon.

In 2001, flooding near Supai swept a 2-year-old boy and his parents to their deaths while they were hiking.

The Havasupai tribe is one of the smaller Indian communities in Arizona, with about 679 members, according to Bureau of Indian Affairs estimates.

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