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Monday, August 18, 2008

Hundreds evacuated near the Grand Canyon after flooding

Working through the challenge of darkness, rescue helicopters continued through Sunday night to evacuate hundreds of residents and campers stranded by the flooding caused by a breached dam near the Grand Canyon.

As of late Sunday night, officials had not reported any deaths or injuries, but they will press on today with their rescue mission as more rain is expected.

About 400 people were evacuated Sunday, including tourists and some of the 400 members of the Havasupai Tribe who live in Supai, located about 250 miles northwest of Phoenix, north of Seligman. The village is in a side canyon of the Grand Canyon.

Tribal members boarded helicopters that flew to Hualapai Point, the Havasu Canyon trailhead. Once they reached the hilltop, they were taken either by bus or van to a Red Cross shelter in a small gymnasium at Peach Springs, about 60 miles southwest of Supai.

Red Cross officials expected nearly 70 evacuees to occupy the gym Sunday night.

Tribal officials reported that the flooding was foreshadowed by rising water levels at Havasu Creek about 10 p.m. Saturday, said Warren Youngman, assistant special agent in charge with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The information was relayed to them by the National Weather Service.

By midnight Saturday, Youngman said, the waters "looked bad." In the next few hours, heavy rains pounded the Redlands Dam south of Supai, causing a breach and waters to rise.

Youngman said an unknown number of bridges and three homes along the Havasu Creek were swept away by 3 a.m., but no injuries were reported. Evacuation orders were made official by 5:30 a.m. Sunday.

As rescue helicopters from several agencies flew people to safety, water levels continued to rise. By 9 a.m. Sunday, they had risen 8 feet above normal, which is "considerable," Youngman said.

Tourists were lined up in cars coming out of the 62-mile paved Route 18 that runs from Hualapai Hilltop to Route 66. There, people coming out of the canyon were giving their names and license-plate numbers, the last in a series of checkpoints to make sure everyone was accounted for.

Among those coming out were Paul Krogue, 29, and Jess Bernard, 26, both from Montana, who spent the entire night and most of the morning stranded on an inaccessible side of Havasu Creek above Mooney Falls.

"Everyone did a phenomenal job," Krogue said. "People came together and helped each other out. There were times there when we thought people were gonna die. We were definitely nervous for ourselves."

He said the entire area was destroyed.

The pair said they witnessed dead animals floating by and saw a group of nine campers stranded in trees nearby. At first light, the pair were able to help hang netting between the trees and their side of the creek so the campers stuck in trees could use a carabiner to get out of the trees and onto safe land.

Krogue and Bernard had to be airlifted in a basket hanging beneath the helicopter. From there, they were taken to another holding place, airlifted again to the village and finally out of the village.

Emily Gerlick, 23, of Phoenix, was with a group of five campers who were flown out early Sunday. She said she woke up around 2:30 a.m. to find water surrounding her tent at the popular Supai Campground, near the picturesque Mooney, Havasu and Navajo falls.

At 4:30 a.m., campers in the area were told they had 10 minutes to gather their belongings and return to Supai, where they were flown out in a Blackhawk helicopter.

The water in the canyon "was rushing and raging," Gerlick said. "It sounded like a freight train."

The helicopters flew Gerlick's party and other evacuees to Hualapai Hilltop, where visitors park their cars before hiking into the canyon.

Another camper, Kyle Jones, 24, from Las Vegas, said members of the tribe from Supai were instrumental in getting people safely out. They strung up rope that evacuees could hold on to as they made their way across the water.

"The campsite had become an island," Jones said.

As much as 8 inches of rain had fallen since Friday, causing trouble even before the dam burst. A private boating party of 16 people was stranded on a ledge at the confluence of Havasu Creek and the Colorado River on Saturday night, after floodwaters carried their rafts away, Grand Canyon National Park spokeswoman Maureen Oltrogge said.

The boaters were found uninjured and were rescued.

Evacuees were taken to a Red Cross shelter in Peach Springs, Oltrogge said. The helicopters conducting the evacuations were from the National Park Service, the National Guard and the Arizona Department of Public Safety. The neighboring Hualapai Tribe, the Red Cross, the Coconino County Sheriff's Office and the Mohave County Sheriff's Office also helped with the evacuations.