Rescue teams in southern Utah have expanded their search for a lost hiker who found herself stranded amid torrential flooding in Zion National Park. Jetal Agnihotri, a 29-year-old from Tucson, Arizona, was among a group of hikers who were swept away by floodwaters rushing through a popular hiking location in one of the park’s many slot canyons.
The episode illustrated how deteriorating weather conditions can transform the region’s striking landscapes enjoyed by millions — including its striking canyons made of red rock and limestone — from picture-worthy paradises into life-threatening nightmares.
Rangers said the area that teams were searching for Agnihotri now includes parts of the Virgin River that flow out from the southern border of Zion National Park. All of the hikers except Agnihotri were found on high ground and were rescued after water levels receded. Her brother told a local television station she could not swim.
The incident was among several to recently wreak havoc on a drought-stricken region that spans from Dallas, Texas, to Las Vegas, Nevada — stranding tourists, closing highways and funneling trees and rocks toward downtowns. Heavy rains pummeled the Dallas-Fort Worth area, causing streets to flood and submerging vehicles as officials warned motorists to stay off the roads.
Zion National Park is among the United States’ most visited recreation areas even though it frequently becomes hazardous and is put under flood warnings by the National Weather Service. Floods can create danger for experienced hikers and climbers as well as the many novices who have flocked to the park since the pandemic bolstered an outdoor recreation boom. Despite warnings, flash flooding routinely traps people in the park’s slot canyons, which are as narrow as windows in some spots and hundreds of feet deep.
“Once you’re in there, you’re just kind of S.O.L. if (a flash flood) happens,” said Scott Cundy, whose Arizona-based trekking company takes visitors on guided tours through the park.
Cundy vividly remembers one year when he was taking a group on a tour and turned to see a wall of water plunging toward them. They rushed to reach high ground in the Grand Canyon, a two-hour drive from Zion. Until moments before, he hadn’t seen one cloud in the sky. “It happens very fast,” he said. Given the topography, Cundy will cancel trips if there’s even a hint of rain in the narrow canyons of Zion.
Farther southeast, nearly 200 hikers had to be rescued in New Mexico, where flooded roads left them stranded in Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
In parks like Zion and Carlsbad Caverns, flooding can transform canyons, slick rocks and normally dry washes into deadly channels of fast-moving water and debris in mere minutes. In previous years, walls of water as tall as buildings have engulfed vehicles, rolled boulders, torn out trees and opened sinkholes where solid ground once stood.
In September 2015, similar storms killed seven hikers who drowned in one of Zion’s narrow canyons.
During that same storm, bodies of another 12 people were found amid mud and debris miles away in the nearby town of Hildale, Utah, a community on the Utah-Arizona border. A group of women and children were returning from a park in two cars when a wall of water surged out of a canyon and swept them downstream and crashing into a flooded-out embankment, with one vehicle smashed beyond recognition. Three boys survived. The body of a 6-year-old boy was never found.
Elsewhere, businesses and trails remained closed in the town of Moab, Utah, which was overwhelmed with floodwaters over the weekend. Trees, rocks and red-orange mud washed into town, with floodwaters carrying cars along the town’s Main Street.
Though much of the region remains in a decades-long drought, climate change has made weather patterns more variable and left soils drier and less absorbent, creating conditions more prone to floods and monsoons.
Flooding has swept parts of southern Utah in and around Moab and Zion throughout the summer, causing streams of water to cascade down from the region’s red rock cliffs and spill out from the sides of riverbanks.
A levee was also breached Monday in a small town near the Arizona-New Mexico state line, forcing the evacuations of 60 people after a weekend of flash floods across the American Southwest.
In Duncan, a rural Arizona town located about 180 miles from Phoenix, weekend rains overwhelmed a dirt-barrier levee built more than a century ago to contain the Gila River, putting the town under inches of water. As many as 60 residents have evacuated, Fire Chief Hayden Boyd said. Water had already begun to recede, but more needed to before the town is safe to return to, Boyd added.
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