Published January 13, 2015
It's uncertain when American Indians living at the bottom of the Grand Canyon will be able to return home as thunderstorms continued to soak the region after floods breached a dam and nearly washed away rafters, authorities said Monday.
A Grand Canyon National Park spokeswoman said five helicopters were taking turns ferrying 269 people out of the Havasupai Tribe's village of Supai, about 2,300 feet below the canyon rim. Authorities also planned to deliver food, water and other provisions to the 100 residents who chose to remain.
It's unclear how much Supai will need since many are choosing to leave the village, and authorities don't know how long it will take to reopen hiking trails to the public.
"As of this morning there were no residents asking for supplies," Grand Canyon National Park spokeswoman Maureen Oltrogge said. "The store was still open this morning."
Supai is extremely remote. It's an eight-mile hike from the nearest parking lot, dropping straight down on a winding canyon trail. The village itself rests well above the Colorado River and includes homes, a post office, a cafe, clinic and a store.
It sits in a region that's popular for hikers and river runners, with towering blue-green waterfalls. About 400 people live there year-round.
The entire region surrounding the village was soaked over the weekend as thunderstorms dumped 3 to 6 inches of rain Friday and Saturday in northern Arizona and about 2 inches more on Sunday.
Some hiking trails and footbridges were washed out and trees were uprooted, officials said.
Another round of showers added almost an inch more of rain Monday morning, and slow-moving storms were expected to sweep over the canyon later in the afternoon, the National Weather Service said.
Over the weekend, dozens of tourists were stranded as rushing water swept away rafts, backpacks, food and other supplies.
"It was definitely frightening, and there was a lot of, 'Whoa, what are we going to do next and what's the morning going to bring?" said Mimi Mills, 42, of Nevada City, Calif., who was stranded with 15 other river runners Saturday afternoon after a flash flood washed away their rafts.
Mills said the group took shelter overnight under an overhang, but had to scramble up a cliff when another flash flood occurred in the middle of the night.
"I woke up to people yelling, 'We've got to get out of here!"' she said. "We booked it up a cliff in 10 seconds, and we just saw this massive rush of water rage down the creek side."
In another part of the canyon, the Redlands Earthen Dam was breached about 45 miles upstream from Supai, park officials said. The small dam forms a pond to provide water for cattle and other livestock.
Rescuers already transported 170 people out of Supai Canyon on Sunday. Another 120 tourists and residents were expected to be lifted out of the canyon by the end of Monday, said Gerry Blair, a spokesman for the Coconino County Sheriff's Department.
No more tourists were being allowed in.
Meanwhile, authorities continued to search for about 11 campers and tourists who remained unaccounted for, Blair said. He said it's possible those people might have already left but authorities would assume they were still in the canyon until that could be determined.
There were no reports of injuries.
Blair said no one was being forced to leave Supai.
Outside the canyon, about 35 evacuees remained at a makeshift shelter Monday at a gymnasium in nearby Peach Springs, said Tracey Kiest, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross.
The Havasupai tribe is one of the smaller Indian communities in Arizona with about 679 members, according to Bureau of Indian Affairs estimates from 2003, the latest statistics available.
Supai is about 75 miles west of Grand Canyon Village, the popular gateway to Grand Canyon National Park.