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People, Places, Stuff

THOUGHTS ON FLASH FLOODS IN THE WAKE OF HURRICANE SANDY

I’m not afraid of plane crashes, pickpockets or most other sorts of travel-related hazards. But I am deathly scared of flash floods based on stories I’ve heard about them. Remember the tragedy that occurred at Zion National Park in September, 1961, when rapidly-rising water trapped 26 people and killed 5 in the famous Narrows of the Virgin River?

At the same time, I find hiking in watersheds where flash floods are common incredibly enticing, which is why I agreed to tackle Orderville Canyon, a tributary of the Virgin River, with my brother several years ago. The park runs a shuttle to the trail head, but issues stiff warnings about flash flooding in the deeply-incised slot canyon. The sky can be perfectly clear, but if it’s been raining in areas that drain into Orderville, the park service cancels the shuttle. That’s what happened the day we planned the expedition and I felt deeply relieved.

My brother, a desert canyon rat if ever there was one, was disappointed, even though he has lived through a couple of flash floods in southeastern Utah, once taking shelter in a small cave where he watched water in the stream below build, crest and then die away, all in about 30 minutes.

I can vividly imagine flash floods in a slot canyon but even so failed to take account of the danger they pose in flat land while driving through the Amargosa Valley just east of Death Valley National Park in the big El Nino winter of 1998. It was dark and raining hard with water breaching drainage culverts and streaming over the shoulders of the road. Pretty soon my car--an insubstantial economy-class rental--started to surf and there was no safe place to pull over. I didn’t breath easily until I saw the lights of Barstow where I finally admitted to myself that I’d just driven through a flash flood.

Before that, while passing through Red Rock Canyon State Park on the northern edge of California’s Antelope Valley, I caught a video shown at the Ricardo Visitors Center of a flash flood that tore through the area in September, 1997, burying vehicles in the muck and undercutting the highway. It was the most damaging flash flood in recent history at a park especially prone to them. “If you look at satellite photos, a very large area (approximately 20 square miles) of drainage is channeled into one main dry wash that flows through the park,” explains Red Rock Canyon Peace Officer Matthew Williams. Other people speculate that flash flooding occurs with unusual frequency in the state park because of off-road vehicles that plow across the fragile desert terrain, scouring off vegetation, leaving the land unable to soak up and hold back fast-flowing water.

If you’re ever in the Red Rock Canyon area, it’s worth stopping to see the 1997 video--not just for the wow factor, but because it teaches you to respect the power of a flash flood. Half of flash flood fatalities occur in vehicles, which is why safety experts say you should never drive through a flooded area; if your car becomes submerged, take off your seat belt, roll down a window, then get out and seek higher ground. And remember, flooding occurs not just in narrow canyons, but on wide-open ground. “Travelers should look out for low, dark clouds on the horizon,” says Matthews. “Even if it is not raining where you are, a heavy cloud burst only 5 miles away can trigger flash flooding.”
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