Anatomy of a flash flood

After a series of deaths, a writer considers his own close calls in canyons.

 

I once wrote a small book called The Desert Cries. It was about flash floods in a dry landscape. It was also about people who were dashed and died in these floods. Though out of print from a small press that no longer exists, the book remains close to my heart. The floods that I witnessed and the lives that were lost as I wrote it are woven into my heart. 

It was August 1997. I’d set off chasing flash floods the day I heard a group migrants died on the border. Crossing through storm drains beneath the town of Douglas, Arizona, 13 were hit by water and mud racing through the concrete tube they’d entered. Some made it out through manhole covers. Most drowned. 

I was taking a month to follow storm cells around Arizona, gathering measurements for a masters thesis at Prescott College. After the migrants, a husband and wife drowned in a side-canyon flood in the Grand Canyon. Then, a group of European tourists were killed by a deluge from a thunderhead 40 miles away, when the wall of water crashed through the natural sculpture gallery of picture-famous Antelope Canyon, outside of Page. Even an Amtrak train crashed into a bridge collapsing from a flood in the desert near Kingman. By the end of that month, 20 in Arizona were dead from floods.

When the Grand Canyon couple died, they were hit in Phantom Canyon, even while I was in nearby Tuckup Canyon experiencing my own flood from the same storm cell.

When the flood hit Antelope Canyon, I was studying radar imagery, seeing a thunderhead collapse over Many Ghosts Hill on the Navajo Reservation. I later traveled that tight, elegant canyon, finding a spray of cut flowers and the name of one of the dead, written inside the eggshell curve of the stone. I also went to the site of the Amtrak derailment, where police tape stretched across barbed wire fences and pieces of broken railroad still lay in the desert. In Douglas, I pulled up a manhole cover and climbed into the drain’s cramped concrete tube, the light from my headlamp fading down the echo chamber, where the first eight migrants had died. I felt as if I were right on their heels. I could still smell the flood in the air. 

Last week, after 20 people died in a wave of flash floods in southern Utah, I couldn’t help thinking of that summer, after which I earned my degree and became somewhat of an expert on desert floods. Of those who died, seven were in a narrow canyon in Zion National Park and another 13 were lost when their cars were swept away from around the town of Hilldale. The seven in Zion were geared up with helmets and ropes, not the most trained group, but certainly capable. The 13 from around Hilldale were drivers and passengers who found themselves unexpectedly swallowed by a flood that dammed itself with debris and then burst through Short Creek. My response was a mix of sadness and an infelicitous awe from the desert announcing itself yet again.

Most people don’t think of the desert as flood prone. But most people don’t live in the desert. Yet our strange, Roadrunner-cartoon topography is directly and indirectly caused by flooding.  Storms break over ground that holds little vegetation. Rainwater flies across the land looking for any downhill passage. Arroyos and washes funnel together, as the contents of thunderheads arrive in tight, narrow spaces: a canyon where you can touch both walls, or a storm drain dry almost every day of the year, until suddenly it is not.

This is where the word flash comes from in flash flood. A canyon can be dry for months or even years. A storm lands far away. The water comes all at once.

Samples I took from the floods that August of ’97 were sometimes only 10 or 20 percent water. The rest was mud. The earth was being reduced and transported. Where a flood hit the town of Kanab, Utah, not far from Hilldale, I waded into one of its red-brown eddies with specimen bottles. I filled the bottles and slogged back out with viscous mud draped down my legs. I was wearing the earth.

Images of the cars washed away from Hilldale are horrific. They are mangled and crushed. These were not just drownings, they were complete destruction. Child seats were torn apart, roofs sheared off. Engines and chassis were folded around themselves and mixed with roots, packed with wet, fine sand. This is the action of 80 to 90 percent solid material mobilized by 10 to 20 percent water.

When you see one of these floods in a narrow bedrock enclosure, it looks like madness. Wild ogres of trees and parts of cars thrust up out of nowhere, only to again disappear. Boils and waves devour each other. When the water recedes, anything but chaos remains. Sandstone walls are fluted and polished. You walk though the space as if through an art instillation. Stone has been turned into a hydrology map, a gracious rendering of the shape of water.

Paria Canyon hiker.
Adam Baker/CC Flickr

When I experienced the flood in the Grand Canyon, I’d given up recording and was perched on a ledge. Soaked with rain and mud after climbing from the flood’s edge, I did not move. I scanned boulders and cracks around me, making sure I was above the high water line. As the flood rose, I wondered how high that line might actually go.

The foamy, composting smell and smack-crack of boulders flipping down the canyon floor overwhelmed my senses. At the same time, from the same rains, three people were taking shelter under a tilted boulder in Phantom Canyon. The boulder miraculously remained through the flood. They did not. Only one in the party survived, his body spun into an eddy where he gasped for breath. He crawled out barely able to see, his corneas scratched from the sediment. The other two, his sister and her husband, were gone.

Within an hour my flood receded, just as it did in Phantom Canyon. What had been a galling and terrible roar was again silence, as the flood trailed away. The next day I scouted down the canyon, where I had to swim through muddy pools left from the flood. In the narrows, where the walls closed to almost touching, still water filled the canyon floor. The flood had lasted an hour at most. The calm of the space belied what happened here 24 hours earlier. Smooth sandstone vaulted over my head as I dragged a wake behind me. The sound of my gentle kicking reverberated. It felt as if I were swimming through the transept of a cathedral. When I reached the Colorado River at the mouth of the canyon, a passing raft group told me to watch for two bodies flushed out of Phantom. I never saw them. 

We are easily lulled by the aridity of deserts. Floods seem unlikely if not impossible. Where would the water come from? I don’t think answering this question would necessarily save lives or prevent disasters, but it would inform how we experience the desert.

Over the years, I haven’t pursued floods to prevent deaths. My interest has been visceral. I see the desert as a blueprint for moving water. I find floods to be elegant, a part of the desert’s identity. But tell that to the people who lost someone. It is often easy for me to find beauty in the purpose of a landscape, but when vehicles of mothers and children are swept away, beauty becomes harder to find. I do not pretend to ease this loss with an eye for nature. Instead, I want us to understand this dry land we live in.

Craig Childs is a long-time contributor to High Country News and is based in Colorado.