Southwestern Flash Floods Submerge Cars, Strand National Park Visitors

Millions were under flood watch over the weekend as rains overwhelmed a wildfire-scorched landscape

Flooding at night
A flash flood in Moab, Utah outside Arches National Park.  City of Moab, Utah via Twitter

Flash flooding across the Southwest over the weekend and Monday led to stranded tourists in national parks, one missing hiker in Utah and roads submerged in Texas. 

In southeastern New Mexico, flood waters trapped about 150 people in the Carlsbad Caverns National Park visitor center, per KTSM. As visitors sheltered in place for nine hours, park staff offered food for sale but ran out. Waters that reached up to 20 feet deep made the exit road impassable.

"There was no signs or anything like that warning us about flash flooding or anything," Michael Conteas, an Albuquerque resident who was visiting the park for the first time with his family, tells KOAT’s Sam Smith, Faith Egbuonu and Angel Salcedo. "Children were upset. My wife was very, very nervous. Everyone was pretty much distraught."

More than 14 million people across the Southwest were under flash flood watches on Monday, according to the New York Times Christine Chung. These “raging torrents after heavy rains” course through rivers, roads or mountain canyons, “sweeping everything before them,” per the National Weather Service. They are usually caused by heavy rainfall in a short period of time—typically less than 6 hours—and can happen within minutes or hours of the rain.

Areas recently burned by wildfires are particularly susceptible to flash floods. In these places, rainfall that would normally be absorbed by the forest quickly runs off. Less rain becomes needed to produce a flash flood, and the water can carry debris that’s usually held in place by plant material. This year’s wildfire season in the Southwest began early and has been intense, partly because of climate change, wrote Molly Hunter for The Conversation in May.

The region’s monsoon season, which began in mid-June, has also been strong and brought fierce rainfall to some areas. The Las Vegas metro area is having its wettest monsoon season in 10 years, report Walter Berry and Colleen Slevin for the Associated Press.

“Most locales in Arizona, New Mexico, the California deserts, southern Nevada, and a few other scattered areas have measured at least 200 percent of normal [rainfall] over the past 2 months,” the U.S. Drought Monitor said in an August 11 report, per the AP. But even these strong rains aren’t enough to bring relief from the region’s decades-long drought, writes the Guardian’s Gabrielle Canon.

Friday, hikers were swept off their feet in Utah’s Zion National Park, as water surged through the Narrows, a popular area that requires hiking in the Virgin River. One visitor, Jetal Agnihotri from Tucson, Arizona, went missing on Friday, and search and rescue missions are still underway.

“We have searchers in the field again today and we are working closely with the National Weather Service to monitor the forecast,” park spokesperson Jonathan Shafer tells the Guardian.

A “100-year flood,” which has a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year, submerged the main road in Moab, Utah, on Saturday. And on Monday morning in Dallas, heavy rainfall turned roads into rivers as cars washed away and water flowed through homes. 

"How scared was I?” one woman tells NBC 5's Larry Collins. “I almost drowned in this car. I had to kick this door open to get out of this car.” 

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