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Flooding cancels hundreds of trips to coveted waterfalls

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.
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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 Friday to determine when it's safe for visitors to return.

"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 anyone wanting to visit has to reserve a spot in the campground or a small lodge. They fill up quickly.

Andrea Molina saw only two dates available for two people and one night until 2020 when she checked earlier this year. She and her partner booked a trip for Friday, rented camping gear, reserved a pack mule and got a hotel for the way up and down from Phoenix.

She was looking forward to the challenging 10-mile (16-kilometre) hike down a winding, dusty trail into the village and through to the campgrounds on her 34th birthday. But she felt grateful she wasn't there amid the flooding this week that sent tourists scrambling for higher ground as a shallow creek rose several feet.

"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 under the weight of the water, tents were buried in sand and debris strewn about. 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 tents to try to stay dry, but he said he noticed the water levels rising quickly and 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. They used headlamps to light their way to the village, she said.

"It was furious," the Mount Vernon, New York, resident said.

Raftopol said they tried to form a human chain to rescue other campers who were 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 centre in the tribal village and spent the night. The others left at sunrise Thursday after the water receded, Fink said.

The tribe opened up a small store in the village for tourists and didn't charge for food or water. Tourists and tribal members gave socks and shoes to those who didn't have them, 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.

Felicia Fonseca, The Associated Press




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