Two tragedies unfolded Monday in southern Utah within hours and miles of each other. Late Monday afternoon, Zion National Park received .063 inch of rain in one hour, causing the Virgin River to rise incredibly fast. Seven people from out-of-state in the park canyoneering in Keyhole Canyon, never made it out of the canyon. In nearby Hildale, Utah, 16 people in two vehicles parked on Canyon Street to watch flash flooding in Short Creek. With little warning, water rushed behind them from a smaller wash that feeds Short Creek and swept 12 people to their deaths. The Hildale tragedy is believed to be deadliest single weather event in Utah’s history.
Both of the tragedies that occurred Monday in Utah, however, were preventable. Those who want to go canyoneering in the slot canyons of Zion National Park are required to obtain a permit from the National Park Service. Those caught in Keyhole Canyon on Monday did just that. However, those individuals also ignored the warning that flash flood were “probable” that was conveyed at about 7:30 a.m. that morning when they picked up their permit. The Hildale victims specifically went to an area that was known to flood because they wanted to watch the flooding. While that was an innocent motive for being there, it was risky business.
The Park Service does its best to warn and educate park visitors of the dangers of storms, even if those storms may be occurring in areas remote from where visitors intend to go. That is because rainfall, even if it is miles away from a canyon that may be impacted, and impacted quickly and without warning, is part of the effected watershed. The Park Service closes slot canyons because of flooding, but not until actual flooding is occurring. Obviously, that can be too late for those who choose to ignore the explicit warnings of the risk. But people who have the temerity to venture into back-country areas, need to have the temerity to take personal responsibility for their actions.
The National Weather Service does its part to make sure that tragedies like that which occurred in Hildale, don’t happen. When thunderstorms first hit the Hildale area, the National Weather Service notified the community’s dispatch center. If watches are issued, that means conditions are favorable for a potential event. If a warning is issued, that means a weather event is imminent or occurring. The Weather Service also maintains a Flash Flood Potential Index that assesses risk based on the specific geography of an area and current atmospheric conditions. This can be a very useful tool to rely on a day before one ventures into the backcountry where watches and warnings cannot be received.
If you do find yourself in an active flooding situation, there are ways to reduce or eliminate the risk to human life. If caught in a flash flood in the outdoors, get to higher ground if at all possible and as quickly possible. If climbing on an object is possible, climb as high as possible. If flooding is occurring indoors, climb to the highest level possible, even if that means the roof. If in a car, don’t drive into a flooded wash or rising waterway. If the water is swift and deep, the vehicle can float and be swept away in the blink of an eye. Turn around and head to the highest ground you can find. If you do find yourself in a flooded vehicle, stay in the vehicle unless it is filling with water. If that happens, get on the roof if at all possible.
Water is critical to our very existence and survival. But it is also very powerful and can hurt or kill us under certain circumstances if we don’t heed that power and act accordingly.