2008 flood alters landscape of famed Grand Canyon site

John Luttman gingerly steps through whitewater to a rock outcropping and leaps off a 30-foot waterfall that did not exist one year ago, splashing into the cyan-colored waters of Havasu Creek.

"It's just exhilarating," says the 33-year-old Tucson resident. "It's the reason you come down here."

One year after a devastating flood hit this world-renowned Grand Canyon destination, the Havasupai tribe has reopened its spectacular falls and pools to visitors. About 100 tourists are allowed daily now, arriving on foot, by horseback and in helicopters. Despite lingering damage from the deluge of Aug. 16-17, 2008, guests say they are spellbound.

"I come down almost every year," says Ruth McDaniel, 53, of San Diego. "I love it so much. And I don't love it any less now."

The flash flood — spawned by monsoon storms in Arizona's Coconino Plateau country — gushed into Grand Canyon tributaries. About 2,500 tourists in the campground were warned in the afternoon, but no one anticipated the wave that struck around midnight. Harrowing accounts are on websites, such as www.ourstory.havasupaiflood.com.

"In the middle of the night, I heard the river raging," wrote camper Bill Rounds. "I got up and saw a wall of water headed toward us."

Helicopters plucked campers from safe perches. There were no deaths.

Greg Fisk of the U.S. Geological Survey, says more than 6 inches of rainfall upstream sent a roiling mass through normally dry channels. Near Supai, Havasu Creek's flow surged from a normal 65 cubic feet per second to 6,000.

Although there have been much larger inundations, Fisk says, canyon conditions made this one hit with devastating force. Floodwaters carved a new streambed, toppled ash and cottonwood trees, and tossed RV-size boulders aside.

The floodwaters also created a new landmark, which is known variously as Rock Falls, Emerald Falls or Unnamed Falls. This is where Luttman took his refreshing dive.

Billy Jack, the Havasupai tourism director, says damage was estimated at $4 million.

Tribal members and volunteers spent 12 months rebuilding, he says. Stream banks have been fortified, pools recreated, trails rerouted. Flood gauges upstream are linked to a warning system in the village.

Mike Lowe, who leads tours into Havasupai, described the flood as a catharsis. "I think it's beautiful, forever cleansing," Lowe says.

Since the reservation reopened to visitors June 1, life seems back to normal.

Gail Brown, 53, a Delta, Ohio, resident on her sixth visit to Havasupai, says "it's way different now."

But, she added, "it's still just so beautiful."

Wagner reports for The Arizona Republic

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