Hiker still missing after being stranded by torrential rain in Utah

Southern Utah rescue teams have expanded their search for a lost hiker who became stranded amid torrential flooding in Zion National Park. Jetal Agnihotri, a 29-year-old man from Tucson, Arizona, was among a group of hikers who were swept away by floodwaters rushing to a popular hiking spot in one of the park’s many slot canyons .

The episode illustrated how deteriorating weather conditions can turn the region’s striking landscapes enjoyed by millions – including its striking canyons made of red rock and limestone – from picture-worthy paradises to deadly nightmares.

Rangers said the area teams searched for Agnihotri now includes parts of the Virgin River that flow from the southern border of Zion National Park. All of the hikers except Agnihotri were found on high ground and rescued after the water levels dropped. Her brother told a local TV station that she couldn’t swim.

The incident was among several to recently wreaked havoc over a drought-stricken region that stretches from Dallas, Texas, to Las Vegas, Nevada — stranding tourists, closing freeways and funneling trees and rocks into downtown areas. Heavy rains battered the Dallas-Fort Worth area, flooding streets and swamping vehicles as authorities warned motorists to stay off the roads.

Zion National Park is one of the most visited recreation areas in the United States, although it frequently becomes dangerous and is subject to flood warnings by the National Weather Service. Flooding can create a hazard for experienced hikers and climbers as well as the many novices who have flocked to the park since the pandemic bolstered a boom in outdoor recreation. Despite warnings, flash floods regularly trap people in the park’s slot canyons, which are as narrow as windows in some places and hundreds of feet deep.

Western Storms
This photo provided by the National Park Service shows the scene of a flash flood in Zion National Park, Utah on June 29, 2021.

National Park Service via AP, file

“Once you’re there, you’re just kind of SOL if (a flash flood) happens,” said Scott Cundy, whose Arizona-based trekking company takes visitors on guided tours of the park.

Cundy vividly remembers a year when he was taking a band on tour and turned around to see a wall of water plummeting towards them. They raced to reach the heights of the Grand Canyon, a two-hour drive from Zion. Until moments before, he hadn’t seen a single cloud in the sky. “It happens very quickly,” he said. Given the topography, Cundy will cancel trips if there is even a hint of rain in the narrow canyons of Zion.

Further southeast, nearly 200 hikers had to be rescued in New Mexico, where flooded roads left them stranded in Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

In parks like Zion and Carlsbad Caverns, flooding can turn normally dry canyons, slick rocks and washouts into deadly channels of water and debris in minutes. In previous years, walls of water as high as buildings have engulfed vehicles, rolled rocks, torn trees and opened up chasms where solid ground once stood.

In September 2015, similar storms killed seven hikers who drowned in one of Zion’s narrow canyons.

During that same storm, the bodies of 12 other people were found amid mud and debris miles away in the nearby town of Hildale, Utah, a community on the border between Utah and Arizona. 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 carried them downstream and crashed into a flooded embankment, with a shattered vehicle at the point of being unrecognizable. Three boys survived. The body of a 6-year-old boy was never found.

Elsewhere, businesses and trails remained closed in the town of Moab, Utah, which was submerged in floodwaters over the weekend. Trees, boulders and orange-red mud poured into the town, with floodwaters carrying cars along the town’s main street.

Western Storms
Vehicles navigate through high water at the intersection of South Main Street and 100 South in Moab, Utah on August 20, 2022.

Rani Derasary/City of Moab via AP, File

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 flooding and monsoons.

Flooding swept through parts of southern Utah in and around Moab and Zion throughout the summer, causing streams of water to tumble from the region’s red rock cliffs and spill from the sides of the banks .

A levee was also breached Monday in a small town near the Arizona-New Mexico border, forcing the evacuation of 60 people after a weekend of flash flooding in the American Southwest.

In Duncan, a rural Arizona town about 180 miles from Phoenix, weekend rains overwhelmed an earth barrier levee built more than a century ago to contain the Gila River, putting the town under centimeters of water. As many as 60 residents were evacuated, Fire Chief Hayden Boyd said. The water had already started to recede, but it would take more before the city could safely return, Boyd added.

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