Record-Breaking Rains Flood Death Valley National Park

The damage blocked roadways and left visitors and employees stranded

Cars covered in debris
Debris from flash flooding buried or trapped about 60 vehicles at Death Valley National Park on Friday. NPS

Roads inside Death Valley National Park remain closed after historic rains caused catastrophic flash flooding on Friday. 

Crews are hard at work removing debris, which initially covered 30 miles of the highway, per a statement from the park. State Route 190, a main route into the park, will be off-limits to drivers until later this month as crews assess the damage and begin making repairs. 

The 3.4 million-acre park, located near the California-Nevada state line, saw 1.46 inches of rain near the Furnace Creek area in three hours—about 75 percent of what that region typically gets in an entire year, according to Jacques Billeaud and Michael R. Blood of the Associated Press (AP). 

The rainfall set a new record for the month of August, and it nearly broke the park’s record for the most rain in a single day—1.47 inches—which occurred on April 15, 1988, report Alex Wigglesworth and Harriet Ryan for the Los Angeles Times.

Damaged asphalt
Damaged asphalt on Beatty Cutoff Road in Death Valley National Park NPS / M.Clark

“The heavy rain that caused the devastating flooding at Death Valley was an extremely rare, 1,000-year event,” says Daniel Berc, a National Weather Service Las Vegas meteorologist, in a statement from the park. “A 1,000-year event doesn't mean it happens once per 1,000 years, rather that there is a 0.1 percent chance of occurring in any given year.”

The deluge caused flash flooding, which buried some 60 vehicles and stranded roughly 1,000 employees and visitors inside the park. Fortunately, nobody was injured, and by Saturday the trapped travelers were able to drive out of the park with law enforcement escorts, reports the park. Emergency responders conducted aerial searches from helicopters and planes to look for any additional stranded vehicles in more remote areas.

Water also flooded rooms and offices at a hotel inside the park, the Inn at Death Valley. Flash floods swept away dumpsters and pushed them into parked cars, which then crashed into other vehicles, according to the park.

Flood damage
Flood damage at Mud Canyon in Death Valley National Park NPS

Summer storms are typically more localized inside the sprawling national park, which made the wide-reaching weather event a rare occurrence, Jennette Jurado, an incident information specialist with the National Park Service, tells the L.A. Times

“It seems like every time we get rain here in Death Valley, it makes the rocks move, so that itself wasn’t a surprise,” she adds. “But just having it be so widespread and having so much volume of rain is certainly a pretty big deal for us.”

The Friday downpour caused the second flooding event in the park within a week. Some roads in the national park, which is the country’s largest outside of Alaska, were also closed last Monday because of flash flooding, reports the AP

“Death Valley is an incredible place of extremes,” says park superintendent Mike Reynolds in a statement. “It is the hottest place in the world and the driest place in North America. This week’s 1,000-year flood is another example of this extreme environment. With climate change models predicting more frequent and more intense storms, this is a place where you can see climate change in action.”