Weeks after flooding rushed through a world-famous gorge off the Grand Canyon, sending tourists fleeing to higher ground, the Arizona tribe that calls the area home is ready to welcome visitors to its reservation known for towering waterfalls that cascade into blue-green pools.
The Havasupai reservation is reopening Saturday for the first time since July 11, when about 200 people had to be evacuated by helicopter as water surged through the campground. Footbridges collapsed, tents were buried in sand and debris was strewn about.
The brunt of the damage was on an 8-mile (13-kilometer) trail that leads to the tribal village of Supai. Heavy rain wiped out the switchbacks and left behind large boulders, Tribal Council member Carletta Tilousi said.
Tourists can reach the reservation only by foot, mule or helicopter. An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people visit annually.
The tribe has spent the past few weeks cleaning up with the help of neighboring tribes and volunteers, Tilousi said.
Here's a look at the flood-prone canyon, its popularity and weather conditions:
The reservation is extremely remote, but visiting it rises to the top of people's bucket lists. Day hikes aren't allowed, and a limited number of overnight permits sell out quickly every year.
Getting to the trailhead takes 4½ hours from Phoenix and four hours from Las Vegas, the closest cities with major airports.
Hundreds of reservations were canceled after the flooding, and the tribe gave those people first dibs on spots in 2019 or a refund.
Lise Bennett and her sister are hiking in Monday for a three-night stay with a tour group. She said she checked online daily to be sure the trip wouldn't be canceled.
"My sister thinks that it will be a very spiritual experience for her, and she just wants to be able to touch the sides of the canyon," said the 49-year-old from a suburb of Toronto.
PRONE TO FLOODING
The reservation lies amid a series of creeks and canyons that make it susceptible to flooding.
A 2008 flood shut down the reservation for more than nine months. Hundreds of tribal members and tourists—some of whom were stranded for a couple of days—had to be flown out.
A waterfall was lost and smaller ones formed. Kurt Schonauer of the U.S. Geological Survey said a Colorado River tributary was flowing at 100 times its normal base flow.
More evacuations came after an October 2010 flood that caused $1.6 million in damage and closed the reservation for three weeks.
The latest damage is estimated at $300,000. The tribe is seeking federal assistance for what Tilousi said is an uncontrollable phenomenon.
"All visitors should be very thankful they're able to come into our reservation, enjoy our waters and our canyon," she says. "At some point, they might not be able to have access to that."
Weather forecasters called the reservation around 6:30 p.m. on July 11 with a flood advisory.
Campers didn't see heavy flows until an hour later as rain fell over the campground, undetected by gauges upstream. A gauge downstream of the campground caught the magnitude of the flooding, showing a rise of about 7 feet (2 meters), the National Weather Service said.
Tribal members on ATVs were at the campground to alert visitors within 10 minutes of getting the advisory, Tilousi said. Most didn't have time to pack up camping gear and sought refuge in trees or on benches. A second flood hit in the dark, but by then, almost everyone was at the village on higher ground.
The Geological Survey has five stream gauges on the reservation, three of which were added after the 2008 flood.
Tilousi said the tribe has talked about adding another closer to the trail but the high cost is a factor.
TOURISM IN MONSOON SEASON
The monsoon season in Arizona that can bring sudden and heavy rainfall has peaked, but it doesn't end until late September. The tribe advises tourists to be prepared.
The risk of flooding is not unlike visiting other remote areas of the American Southwest in the summer. Visitors can check stream gauge data or sign up for weather reports, but cell reception is spotty.
Bennett is not worried.
"They did a great job of getting everyone out safely the last time," she said.
Tribal spokeswoman Abbie Fink said that's the goal.
"The closing is never going to happen just because of monsoon potential," she said.
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