Flash flooding sweeps Arizona; 2 missing in Grand Canyon

Felica Fonseca
Associated Press

Flagstaff, Ariz. – Authorities were searching Thursday for two people on a rafting trip who were swept into the frigid Colorado River during a flash flood in the Grand Canyon, part of monsoon storms that have also inundated Flagstaff.

A torrent of water through a slot canyon washed away the camp where two commercial rafts with 30 passengers had pulled off the river to stay Wednesday evening, said Grand Canyon spokeswoman Joelle Baird. Someone on the trip called authorities from a satellite phone asking for help and saying people were injured.

This drone image provided by the Golder Ranch Fire District shows firefighters safely rescue a man and his two daughters from the roof of their vehicle after it was swept away in fast moving water just north of Tucson, Ariz., on Wednesday, July 14, 2021.

Baird said rescue crews on the ground, in the water and in the air are trying to quickly locate at least two people who ended up in the river, but the prospects of finding them alive are bleak.

“The likelihood of survivability of someone entering the Colorado River without a life jacket is, unfortunately, really low,” she said. “Our search managers are also keeping that in mind, but we’re also optimistic.”

A park helicopter took two paramedics to the river late Wednesday to treat and stabilize the injured rafters. The most critically injured passenger was airlifted to a hospital, and rescuers planned to fly out six others Thursday, Baird said.

No information on identities of the people or the extent of their injuries was immediately released.

Anissa Doten uses a five gallon bucket to bail water out of her front yard at the corner as a second day of flooding from monsoon rain falling on the Museum Fire burn area impacts neighborhoods in Flagstaff, Ariz. on Wednesday, July 14, 2021.

The flood hit the camp that is nearly 40 miles (64 kilometers) from where the rafts launched at Lees Ferry near the Arizona-Utah state line. Forecasters had issued a flash flood for the area Wednesday, but it’s not clear whether the rafting guides were aware. Baird declined to release the name of the company.

Radar showed about an inch (2.5 centimeters) of rain along that stretch of the Colorado River where the water temperature is about 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 Celsius), the National Weather Service said.

The entire Southwest that has been desperate for rain after two years of dismal monsoon activity has been hammered lately, with more rain in the forecast.

In Tucson, a fire department swift water team rescued a father and his two daughters from the roof of their vehicle Wednesday after they drove into a usually dry wash and got stranded in the floodwaters, said Golder Ranch Fire District spokesman Capt. Adam Jarrold.

“Our message, telling everybody, be patient, especially here in the desert,” he said. “The water comes up quick, but it also goes away quick.”

Farther north in Flagstaff, floodwaters have inundated communities in the shadow of a mountain that burned in 2019 and adjacent neighborhoods, sending at least one vehicle floating down a city street. Residents had been somewhat prepared for a major flood with sandbags around their homes and concrete barriers to redirect water. Still, many of them have been digging mud, logs and debris from their yards.

Flagstaff likely can recoup some of the costs for responding to and repairing flood damage related to wildfires under a recent state law. Cities can be reimbursed for providing emergency shelter and support for people who are displaced, but it does not allow spending to repair individual homes.

The threat of flash flooding will remain through next week, the National Weather Service said, though the coverage will be more scattered than widespread.

“The moisture is not going anywhere, and it will heat up as well, so those are perfect ingredients for thunderstorms in the afternoon and evenings in Arizona,” said Evan LaGuardia, a meteorologist in Flagstaff.

Rescuers at the Grand Canyon were taking advantage of clear weather Thursday morning to do an aerial search of the river and deliver a light-weight vessel downstream from the camp that can travel up the river looking for anyone in the water.

Thursday afternoon had a 50% chance of thunderstorms, and expected hot temperatures and high humidity could complicate search efforts, Baird said.

The rest of the rafting group moved to a safer camp downstream from the slot canyon but without much of their belongings, Baird said. The park will work to get people who want to cut the trip short off the river, she said.


Associated Press writers Bob Christie and Paul Davenport in Phoenix contributed to this report.