Authorities to resume searches for unaccounted for tourists - East Valley Tribune: News

Authorities to resume searches for unaccounted for tourists

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Posted: Sunday, August 17, 2008 3:44 pm | Updated: 9:15 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Authorities will again be searching for any remaining tourists or hikers in and around the Havasupai Tribe's village of Supai deep in the western portion of the Grand Canyon after floodwaters forced the evacuation of scores of people.

 SLIDESHOW: Grand Canyon flooding

Helicopters on Monday took turns ferrying 85 people out of Supai, about 2,300 feet below the canyon rim, said Gerry Blair, a spokesman for the Coconino County Sheriff's Department. Rescuers transported another 170 people out of Supai Canyon on Sunday.

The American Red Cross says that over the past few days, 111 Supai residents and 15 tourists registered at an emergency shelter set up at a school gymnasium in nearby Peach Springs, said Red Cross spokeswoman Tracey Kiest.

Only two people were spending the night at the shelter Monday, Kiest said.

The shelter was expected to remain open Tuesday, Kiest said.

To see firsthand what was happening, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano toured the flooded area by air Monday.

Upon her return to Phoenix, the governor told reporters the most important task was to restore a pack trail that serves as a main path for delivering mail, food and other supplies to villagers at Supai.

The governor added that one significant portion of the trail was still under water.

Village residents asked for extra supplies Monday, but Blair said authorities weren't sure yet what to deliver. 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.

"There's nobody down there in dire straits because they don't have any food or water right now," he said.

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.

"We believe we got all the tourists and all the hikers out of there," Blair said.

The 11 hikers either were swept downstream or simply left the area on Saturday evening and don't know they're considered to be missing, said Chris English, a Bureau of Indian Affairs spokesman, in an interview with The Arizona Republic.

"We still don't have any reports of fatalities," English said.

Supai is extremely remote. It's an eight-mile hike from the nearest parking lot, dropping straight down on a winding canyon trail. The community is the only one in the United States where the mail is delivered by mule.

The village itself rests well above the Colorado River and includes homes, a K-8 school, 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.

Supai and the surrounding area got 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.

Napolitano said the Havasu Falls looked like high walls of water with the normally crystal blue water turned to a dirty brown from tons of sediment flowing through.

"It gives you a real impression of the force of Mother Nature when she shows her strength," Napolitano 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, an earthen wall that forms a pond to water cattle and other livestock was breached about 45 miles upstream from Supai.

Havasupai Vice Chairman Matthew Putesoi declined to comment until the tribe checks the extent of the damage to the village. No more tourists were being allowed in.

Ferdinand Rivera, who was visiting the canyon with friends, awoke around midnight Saturday to the voices of other campers warning of rising flood waters that were approaching his tent.

Within 10 minutes, he said he gathered his tent and belongings and sought higher ground. But with a nearby bridge and trails washed out, he said "there was no way of hiking back, there was no way of getting out."

With his gear in tow, he hiked about two miles across rugged ground to the village where he was evacuated by helicopter Monday afternoon.

Rivera said officials should have forced evacuations sooner and worked quicker to remove those who were stranded in the canyon.

"It was so negligent, so badly handled not only by the villagers but also by whatever agency was there, that I will never go back to that place," he said. "It's beautiful. I would have loved to go (back there)."

There were no reports of injuries. Blair said no one was being forced to leave Supai.

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 30 miles west of Grand Canyon Village, the popular gateway to Grand Canyon National Park.

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