When I was a small girl, I read a book called The Wish Giver that tells the tale of three children making wishes that are granted far beyond what they could ever want. One boy, watching his family struggle to have enough water on their farm, wishes for “water as far as the eye can see,” and he gets just that: floods and floods of water covering their farmland and ruining that year’s crops. It’s a parable that strikes close to home. In a colossal drought, watching Lake Powell dwindle and the Colorado River Basin states try to negotiate what water rights look like in this new era, we are praying for rain and ending up with floods. Though the rains are no replacement for our Rocky Mountain and Wasatch snow “reservoirs” in terms of water content and ending the drought, it sure is a joy to welcome the monsoons back to the area after a few years without them, and we’ll take all we can get.
That said, our friendly rains can turn deadly in an instant. On September 14, 2015, a “100-year flood” hit our neighbors in eastern Washington County, leaving 13 dead in Hildale, seven dead in Zion’s Narrows and one dead in Hurricane. Several of the victims were children. A “100-year flood” does not actually mean it will happen every 100 years; it actually means that there is a one-in-100 (one percent) chance of them occurring in any given year. So, even though it’s statistically unlikely that you’d have another flood of that magnitude shortly thereafter, there is still that one percent chance every year. Here in the United States, just this year, there have been four (!) “1000-year-flood” events, leaving 38 people dead and destroying countless vehicles, structures and roadways.
In the time it’s taken me to draft this article, another local tragedy hit. Two hikers were swept off their feet in the Narrows on August 19 – one person was swept several hundred yards downstream and required a rescue by National Park Service, while the other (from a separate hiking party) was found deceased three days later. Though it’s been less publicized, several Narrows hikers that same day were able to save themselves by scampering to high ground, just in time. Though they also needed rescue from professionals afterward and probably shouldn’t have been in the Narrows that day in the first place, they did the right thing to save themselves from harm.
At the Kane County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Team, it’s not lost on us how ironic it feels to have a “swiftwater” response team in a county with very little water, none of it swift. But storms come on fast and the same canyons we love to explore become deep, narrow channels of raging water.
What I’m about to say will sound like a “no, duh” moment, but read the fine print: before you go into canyon country in the summer, check the weather. This is far more nuanced than it appears. First of all, I recommend checking multiple sources. Predicting the weather is complicated, particularly with all the microclimates we have in this part of the world. We’ve all gotten a text from a friend across town saying “Wow, it’s dumping out!”, only to look outside and it’s sunny in our part of town. Using a weather app that has a map function that allows you to zoom into the particular area you will be, can be helpful. I personally use weather.gov, which is run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). However, they get it wrong, too. So, also use your eyes and ears. Keep an eye on the sky, both above you and in the distance. Take note of the time and say it aloud for everyone – “Hmm, those clouds are building over there; it’s 11:30. Let’s keep an eye on them.” That will give you reference for how quickly the storm is building or moving the next time you take notice.
Secondly, know what watershed you’re in. Is it a large basin that funnels all into the narrow canyon you’re in? Or is it quite small and you can see every part of it? In large basins, a storm can be miles away, raining cats and dogs, building a powerful flood upstream of you, while you naively enjoy a sunny respite, not knowing what is coming. Do some research – look at satellite photos on Google Maps, read the paper maps, see what is upstream, read trip reports, ask around. Is it known for flooding? Is it a big rocky basin that will run-off quickly or is it a rolling sandy basin that will absorb some of the rains before flooding?
Take note of recent history: Have there been rains recently? Is the ground saturated? Are there pools of standing water in lots of places? If so, be extra wary of the next storm. The ground can only handle so much moisture before it starts to run off. An area that didn’t flood in the last storm might flood in the next one, even if there is less rain.
Get an early start – monsoons are related to heat coming off the land. Naturally, as the day’s heat builds, the clouds do, too. That’s why monsoons typically hit in the afternoon or evening.
As you hike through a canyon, take note of the places where you could get to higher ground if need be. You’ll want to be able to move there quickly in the case of an impending flood. Only camp on high ground during monsoon season.
Watch for early signs of the impending flood. If the water level suddenly increases, even if it’s just an inch or two, seek higher ground immediately. More is likely on the way. If flowing water suddenly turns cloudy, turbid or brown, do the same. If you are in a normally dry canyon where large puddles are forming and growing, the ground is saturated and likely to start flowing downstream.
Do not try to outrun a flood. Flash floods happen exceedingly fast – faster than most people expect.
If you get caught on high ground while a flood rushes below you – great job! Now stay put! The flood will pass, usually within an hour or two. Be patient and keep yourself warm. Do not enter the flood waters.
A person can get swept off their feet by just six inches of swiftly moving water! If you get caught in a flash flood, you will have little to no control, so this is your last resort. Get yourself onto your back, facing forward, feet in front of you. Use your hands to try to direct your travel as best you can to avoid getting shoved up against a “strainer” – an object that will strain water around, but you will be stuck against it and underwater. If you can direct yourself to an area of high ground, try to.
Though most of my advice thus far has had to do with outdoor recreation, people most often die in flash floods inside of their vehicles. We often feel invincible in our cars, but it only takes 12 inches of water for a car to lose traction and become a piece of flotsam at the hands of a watery dragon. Often times, if the drivers had only waited 20 minutes to let the peak flooding decline before crossing a road’s low point, they would make it through.
Be wary of low points in any road. When you’re driving around town, take note of the places that minorly flood during an average thunderstorm. Then, in a bigger storm, pay extra caution to those places. If there’s an alternative route, take it. Or wait it out.
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