FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Hundreds of tourists who booked coveted overnight trips on tribal land deep in a gorge off the Grand Canyon will have to reschedule after heavy flooding forced evacuations and shut down the area for at least a week.
Abbie Fink, a spokeswoman for the Havasupai Tribe, said 300 people had reservations for either the campground or the lodge in the next several days. Crews were assessing the damage to determine when it’s safe for visitors to return.
“The waves of floodwaters did not hit Supai Village, but there is some significant flooding in several Tribal buildings to to the rain water,” Fink said in a statement to the Arizona Daily Sun. “In addition, there are reports of debris, sinkhoes and a bridge that has been compromised.”
She said the damage was in areas that aren’t open to the public. Supai Village is about a mile and a half from the public campground.
“Every day it’s closed, it’s another set of people impacted by it,” she said.
The remote reservation outside Grand Canyon National Park is best known for its towering blue-green waterfalls that appear like oases in the desert. The tribe doesn’t allow day hikers, so visitors have to reserve overnight trips. The reservations fill up quickly.
Andrea Molina saw only two dates available until 2020 when she checked earlier this year. She and her partner booked a trip for Friday, rented camping gear and reserved a pack mule for the trip from Phoenix.
She was looking forward to the challenging 10-mile hike down a winding, dusty trail to the campgrounds on her 34th birthday. But she felt grateful she wasn’t amid flooding this week that sent tourists scrambling as a shallow creek rose several feet.
She said she won’t be able to recoup all the costs but will try next week to rebook.
“We’re just going to enjoy the day, maybe do a small hike and make the best out of it,” she said Friday.
The flooding hit just before dark Wednesday and again before sunrise Thursday, forcing the evacuation of about 200 tourists. Some, wearing only their swim suits, had to abandon their camping gear.
Footbridges collapsed, tents were buried in sand and debris strewn about as water rushed over the landscape. Campers sought refuge on benches, in trees and in caves. The existing waterfalls turned a muddy brown, and new ones emerged from the steep walls of the canyon.
Christian Raftopol and the three others in his group planned to hike out at 3 a.m. Thursday and were packing when the rain started falling. They ducked into their tents, but he said the water levels rose quickly and he warned others.
He fled to a nearby restroom after pulling fellow campers from their tents. He thought they were close behind but saw them fall into the water after a footbridge broke and was swept away. They were able to trudge through to join him and later used headlights to hike to the tribal village, he said.
“It was furious,” the Mount Vernon, New York, resident said.
Raftopol said they tried to form a human chain to help other campers stuck on an island but couldn’t and advised them to go another direction. Meanwhile, he saw a man using a wooden pole to guide himself through the water to reach tourists farther down in the campground.
All but 17 of the tourists were able to get to the community center in Supai village and spent the night. The others left at sunrise Thursday after the water receded, Fink said.
The tribe opened a small store in the village for tourists and didn’t charge for food or water. Tourists and tribal members gave out socks and shoes, tourists said. A lodge on the way to the canyon offered free showers and breakfast to the evacuees.
U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs spokeswoman Nedra Darling said the agency hasn’t received a damage estimate but assisted in evacuating the tourists.
The canyon is accessible only by foot, helicopter or mule ride. About 400 tribal members live there year-round.
Eric Kremer was one of the last out Thursday and reveled in the experience from his home in Las Vegas on Friday after a shower, food and a beer.
“I never felt my life was threatened while I was there,” he said. “Obviously that’s in the control of Mother Nature. It wasn’t up to me.”