An Arizona woman was still missing Monday after being swept away at Utah’s Zion National Park three days earlier as flooding surged through the southwestern United States and imperiled tourists visiting the region’s scenic parks.
Farther east, heavy rains pummeled the drought-stricken Dallas-Fort Worth area on Monday, causing streets to flood and submerging vehicles as officials warned motorists to stay off the roads.
Rangers at Zion National Park said Monday that they had expanded their search for Jetal Agnihotri, a 29-year-old from Tucson, Arizona, southward, to areas surrounding the Virgin River just outside the park. Her brother told a local television station that she could not swim.
The park is among the United States’ most visited recreation areas even though it frequently becomes hazardous as conditions can deteriorate quickly. Flash floods can create danger for experienced hikers and climbers as well as the many who have flocked to the park since the pandemic bolstered an outdoor recreation boom. Despite rangers’ attempts at 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.
Scott Cundy, who has been guiding hiking trips in canyons for 17 years through his Arizona-based company Wildland Trekking, has experienced that firsthand.
He remembers turning to see a wall of water plunging towards him and a group he guided in 2011, as 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.
Cundy will cancel trips if there’s even a hint of rain in the narrow canyons of Zion.
“Once you’re in there, you’re just kind of SOL if (a flash flood) happens,” he said.
Agnihotri 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. Both the National Weather Service and Washington County, Utah, had issued flood warnings for the area that day.
All of the hikers except Agnihotri were found on high ground and were rescued after the water levels receded.
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, a similar storm to this weekend’s killed seven hikers who drowned in one of Zion’s narrow canyons.
During that same storm, the 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 in the region, businesses and trails remained closed in the town of Moab, Utah, which was overwhelmed with floodwaters over the weekend. Nearly 200 hikers had to be rescued in New Mexico, where flooded roads left them stranded in Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
Although 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.
In Balch Springs, a Dallas suburb where last month a grass fire that started in a tinder-dry open field damaged over two dozen homes, officials on Monday were rescuing people from flooded homes.
“The water has nowhere to go and the creeks are starting to kind of flood over some. We’re just having them hunker in place until we can get to them by boat,” said Fire Chief Eric Neal, who did not yet have a count of the number of rescues done.
Associated Press journalists Jamie Stengle, Terry Wallace and Jake Bleiberg in Dallas, Julie Walker in New York and Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.