Flash flood warning
November 11, 2015 2:24 PM   Subscribe

Is this kind of thing a common occurrence there? If this flooding was some kind of freak event, these guys were ridiculously well placed and prepared for it.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 2:36 PM on November 11, 2015

Flash Flooding in southern Utah is a very common thing. The desert basins will get rained on in one corner and send waves of water washing across to other places, often where its sunny and unexpected. Catches hikers and such off guard a lot and can be very dangerous.
posted by msbutah at 2:38 PM on November 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah this kind of flooding is common in dry areas; the water basically runs off instead of soaking into the ground. It can be deadly if you're caught in a canyon or ravine during one.
posted by Nelson at 2:40 PM on November 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

After seeing some of the Japan tsunami videos, I'd have been running like hell for high ground.
posted by Chrysostom at 2:41 PM on November 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

In Death Valley, CA, they had a 1000-year flood in October. I bow to you, Mother Nature.
posted by Melismata at 2:44 PM on November 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

No, that's what she wants. This is a shock and awe campaign. We must remain unwavering in our crusade to destroy her.
posted by Sangermaine at 2:47 PM on November 11, 2015 [23 favorites]

Having never seen one, and only having spent a little time in the southwest, I never realized a flash flood might be loaded up with pointy sticks. Yikes!

Even though they mostly kept to areas which were clearly riverbeds some of the time, that was still pretty frightening.
posted by aubilenon at 3:05 PM on November 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

That was a flash flood that lives up to what 11-year-old-me-who-had-never-been-to-the-USA imagined they might be like!
posted by anonymisc at 3:10 PM on November 11, 2015

When we were younger playing around I saw a kid get swept away by at first what was less than a foot of water. Maybe 100 yards we ran what felt like miles in minutes to catch him and found him knocked out at the bottom of some 4 foot drop where the end of the drainage ditch connected with city overflow.

I mean, just like that. He was splashing fucking around, and then whoosh. You turn around and he’s gone.
posted by four panels at 3:11 PM on November 11, 2015 [6 favorites]

Yeah, now imagine something similar in a canyon that's three feet wide and 50 feet deep.
posted by gottabefunky at 3:12 PM on November 11, 2015 [8 favorites]

I've ridden motorcycles in the backcountry of southern Utah a bit and flash floods are no joke. There is one particular riverbed crossing near Cathedral Valley that I hustle through; if a flood came there would be no good route to get out of its way. It's definitely not the place to dawdle.
posted by workerant at 3:15 PM on November 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

I was staying at Furnace Creek in Death Valley during the flood of August 2004. We had a foot of water race through our hotel room and had to wait for the road to be cleared in the morning so that the CHP could escort us out.....couldn't believe how fast the water came up from the desert.
posted by inflatablekiwi at 3:25 PM on November 11, 2015

gottabefunky: "Yeah, now imagine something similar in a canyon that's three feet wide and 50 feet deep ."

I'm guessing that this could have been a whole lot worse.
posted by Splunge at 3:25 PM on November 11, 2015 [11 favorites]

Flooding in the Algarve, Portugal last week.
posted by chavenet at 3:29 PM on November 11, 2015

The two times I've been to Zion so far, the threat of rain has kept us out of the slot canyons and this is a really great illustration of why. You'd think, oh, it's water, I could treat it like a wave and swim underneath it, and then you see the debris plug barreling down on you...
posted by feloniousmonk at 3:30 PM on November 11, 2015

I'm pretty sure that was only 100 gallons of water and a billion gallons of wood. How Mother Nature made the wood liquid is pure alchemy.
posted by politikitty at 3:37 PM on November 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh god, don't stand there!
posted by procrastination at 3:41 PM on November 11, 2015 [8 favorites]

I have been in the narrows of Little Wild Horse Canyon with my kids. I have pictures of them six feet up in the air with their backs braced on one side of the slot and their feet, holding them up on the other. There are a couple of places where I touch both sides going through. Big fun! Irresistible! Near Goblin Valley.
posted by Oyéah at 4:15 PM on November 11, 2015

I'm guessing this could have been a whole lot worse.

Yes, it could.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 4:25 PM on November 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

This is how those canyons happened, this happening again and again over millions of years.
posted by Oyéah at 4:30 PM on November 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

How Mother Nature made the wood liquid is pure alchemy.

Yeah, but without liquid wood where would we get liquid paper?
posted by urbanwhaleshark at 4:30 PM on November 11, 2015 [8 favorites]

posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 5:22 PM on November 11, 2015

Is this kind of thing a common occurrence there?

Yes. We visited the Capitol Gorge in Capital Reef National Park, and were advised to check with the Rangers that there hadn't been a thunderstorm anywhere in the area else we might meet a wall of water coming down the canyon.

The tree trunks wedged 15 feet or more above the canyon floor bore testimony to that.

[Oh, and Capitol Reef and the whole Torrey/Fruita area is well worth a visit]
posted by 43rdAnd9th at 5:30 PM on November 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

Some of the people in that first video were standing in places that might have been dangerous -- videos can be deceptive but from the angle shown I would not have stood where they were.

The kids in the slot canyon video was scary, though, and with just a bit more rain would have been a tragedy instead of an adventure.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:08 PM on November 11, 2015

Yeah - that slot canyon video is horrifying because of what it could have been. The adults were remarkably calm and relaxed.
posted by leslies at 6:10 PM on November 11, 2015

Hey, let's camp over here where it's nice n flat.
posted by artdrectr at 6:15 PM on November 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

I can't be the only one yelling at the screen wanting these people to GET THE HELL AWAY FROM THE EDGE....
posted by Paladin1138 at 7:04 PM on November 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I never realized a flash flood might be loaded up with pointy sticks. Yikes!

Sticks? A lot of those were full size trees. I've hiked this area (never in a rainstorm), and you can see the wreckage of these floods everywhere. They're the defining feature of the landscape. There're piles of twisted pines as big as houses, it feels very inhospitable in a beautiful way.
posted by DGStieber at 7:10 PM on November 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Buckskin Wash, can touch both sides, 1500 feet deep in spots. Then it joins the Paria at the narrows this rolls along for 14 miles. I hiked the Paria narrows 33 miles to Marble Canyon in the Grand Canyon. You know that at times mother nature, flushes. I always keep an escape route in sight as much as possible. This is a spectacular hike, May is a good time for it. You have to spot a car at Lee's Ferry, a concern will drive you back up to the top. I have spent as much time in southern Utah as I could, never been in a flash flood, never saw a rattlesnake. There is still time.
posted by Oyéah at 10:36 PM on November 11, 2015

I only visited Utah once for a few weeks and never saw any floods, but I certainly saw some rattlesnakes.

I was making my way through a very tight canyon (as in varying from moving along sideways slowly at ground level to stemming up and down 10 or more feet trying to find a passage wide enough for my chest to fit through) when I came upon a very restful-looking group of three rattlesnakes laying in the middle of the canyon. Luckily, the canyon was narrow enough that I could just stem up a few feet, keeping a watchful eye on the snakes, and then traverse over them.

A short while later I came to a slot that was too narrow for me entirely, so I had to traverse back over the rattlesnakes to make my way out. They never seemed bothered. My girlfriend, who was waiting for me at the start of the canyon, was not particularly impressed with my rattlesnake avoidance technique. What was I going to do, I said, just turn around? She thought that would have been a reasonable option.

The rattlesnakes where much more pleasant to get past than the decomposing cow. Hiking down another, somewhat wider canyon, we started to notice an unpleasant smell growing stronger and stronger. A hiker coming out had mentioned something about a cow but we didn't really get any details. Soon we came upon said cow, clearly having become stuck in a narrow section of the canyon some time previous, in a rather advanced state of decomposition, with a small calf beside it. Having already hiked half way down the canyon, we weren't about to turn back, so we stemmed up a little and then gingerly worked our way along one canyon wall above the rotting corpse. When you are that near a partially decomposed cow, the smell is quite intense.

I'm not one to be afraid of looking down while climbing but I definitely wasn't going to look down while climbing above that cow.
posted by ssg at 10:58 PM on November 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

Part of what generates these floods is that there isn't anywhere for the water to go in the desert. In Utah it is all rock or if it is soil it is hard pan and does not absorb much water.

I did a season in Utah working for Zion National Park. I swear half our orientation involved the dangers of slot canyons when it rains--with graphic true stories about drowned boy scouts and the like. One day we got to watch a flash flood roll under the highway bridge. The head of the flood was just as in the videos--a wall of water on top of the river, the front of it all full of logs and stumps and sticks. Even cooler though was what was underneath the logs. As the flood passed under the bridge you could feel the vibrations of boulders grinding down the riverbed below us.
posted by LarryC at 11:16 PM on November 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

I also worked in Zion National Park for a summer, and quite early after I got there I let the rangers know that, if possible, I wanted to hike the Narrows. I also had to make sure my supervisor was aware that I had this intention and get her to agree to let me take off a shift if weather conditions were okay for me to attempt this.

I can't find online any of the same information I received when I was working there in the late 1980s, and circumstances (such as permits and stuff) seem to have changed a lot in the intervening ~30 years.

Basically, the rules were this: There has to be ZERO rain activity forecast for something like 200 miles around all the High Ground area upstream from the Virgin River. You have to be able to leave VERY early in the morning, and you have to be prepared to do the entire hike in one day and to be wet most of the time.

About 8 weeks into my time there, I got a call from the ranger station around 5am saying "if you really want to do this, today is probably your best day to do it." So I had to be out of the staff dorm and meet the ranger and the 2 others who were going to do the hike with me by 5:30.

We were met with bag lunches and were driven up and out of the park (that particular stretch of road is amazing with old carved tunnels that have windows that look out of the sides of the canyon while you try to get to the top) and then around to a ranch that sits up on top of the plateau that Zion is carved into, where the Virgin River flows at ground level before the canyon-carving starts.

And basically you just walk downstream. It's a full-day hike, I think it was maybe 15 miles? And it's impossible to get lost, because the water just keeps flowing downhill no matter how many side canyons and stuff you come across. And you're in the water well over half the time, sometimes actually swimming. (Have to make sure you eat your sack lunch before you pass through this part of the hike.)

It was one of the most dramatic experiences of nature I have ever had. I spent the entire day cold and wet and full of wonder at the amazing beauty. If you keep walking downstream you eventually get back to the Zion Lodge exhausted and shivering (despite the southern Utah summer heat) and just delighted at how hard you just worked to see something so beautiful that so few get to actually experience.

Many people make plans to hike The Narrows, few get the chance to have those plans actually come through because of summer desert monsoon storms that sweep across the plain and make doing this hike too risky nearly all the time.

As someone who grew up doing a lot of backpacking and other Scoutish things, this is one of the most fond memories I have from my life.

(Also, apparently Amy Grant had been in Zion not too long before, filming her video for Lead Me On up in the slot canyons. which also includes views out of the canyon tunnel windows at points.)
posted by hippybear at 1:49 AM on November 12, 2015 [9 favorites]

One of those sneaky things that kills you. In the Southwestern US, they're called Arroyos -- stream beds that are dry. Except if a storm hits well upstream, then suddenly? They're not dry at all.

And you're thinking "wow, that old dried up riverbed is flat and smooth and a great place to hike" and it's all nice and fine and then the water comes and knocks you down and you drown.
posted by eriko at 2:45 AM on November 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

I was once offloading in the southern NM desert in, I think they were called Baja Beetles? The VW Bugs that are convertibles?

Anyway we had gone off someplace to play around on sand dunes, and when we tried to get back, a couple of the arroyos had filled in with water from a monsoon shower several miles away (we had commented on the column of water and lightning we saw over toward the horizon coming from that cloud).

We had to wait until the water passed and then pray we didn't get stuck as we went back across.

Fun times.
posted by hippybear at 2:53 AM on November 12, 2015

The embankment those people were standing on looked awfully sandy.
posted by bonobothegreat at 4:58 AM on November 12, 2015

I love love love dirt biking thru the non-preserve areas of southern Utah. Literally hundreds of miles of every sort of terrain you can imagine. Plus dirt bikes are excellent tools for outrunning flash floods.

But what I really came here to say is, have a look at this. WTF is that? You think, perhaps, different colored soil in a flash flood. Until about 1:05 in the video. NOW WTF is that?
posted by Purposeful Grimace at 6:34 AM on November 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Almost any time there's a storm a comin' we get weather alerts for flash floods in the San Fernando Valley. Depending on where you are, you can get washed away in seconds and the people camping in the L.A. River frequently do. There's quite an effort right now to get all of the homeless living in the river to higher ground before El Niño starts making things very wet.
posted by Sophie1 at 7:05 AM on November 12, 2015

But what I really came here to say is, have a look at this. WTF is that? You think, perhaps, different colored soil in a flash flood. Until about 1:05 in the video. NOW WTF is that?

posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:21 AM on November 12, 2015

We had our own flash-flood gulley at the bottom of the garden where I grew up. It was normally a small stream, one of two that drained the Devon valley in which our village sat, a couple of feet deep and maybe five foot wide, but with walls that varied between about four and eight feet. They were lined with lichen-laden slate slats, probably dating from the 18th century when the garden was first laid out and the house built. The stream ran from a very dark wooded area at one edge of the garden, with the very tall banks, to a similarly deep stretch at the other, but in the middle it was accessible amid wild garlic and bamboo and the young Devonian spent endless summers in there building dams, troubling the local water beasts (caddis fly larvae, elvers, even the odd tiny trout) and, well, it was fabulous.

The stream got angry during storms, when it was thoroughly out of bounds (not that you needed to be told that) but it was also used by the water treatment plant at the head of the valley when it needed to flush out its reservoir or had an excess to get rid of. Then the stream could build up in minutes to its full force, without warning and with no weather behind it. In general, I could spot this happening and clamber out in short order, but once I was caught by surprise right in the deep, dark place and very nearly lost my footing before I could get to the nearest climbable (very slippy, not recommended) tree. It remains a very vivid memory, and it took me a while before I could go back to the house and pretend nothing much had happened.

So, yes. Even in the most bucolic of English gardens, the water wants to kill you.

(During one of the worst winter storms, the stream burst its banks and took out various walls that had been there for two hundred years. There is no permanent anything when weather is involved.)
posted by Devonian at 9:08 AM on November 12, 2015


Hail. In a river. In the desert. Were you going for least likely probability?
posted by Purposeful Grimace at 10:43 AM on November 12, 2015

Yeah, now imagine something similar in a canyon that's three feet wide and 50 feet deep

Question: You're in this situation, but the water level is rising even quicker. Is it best to race upstream (harder work, slow progress, but with so much water pouring down the sides, the further upstream you can manage to get the less water is flowing into you) or best to race downstream (quicker and easier but water levels will get much higher until you might not be able to keep your footing), assuming that climbing out (my actual instinct) isn't an option?
posted by anonymisc at 11:03 AM on November 12, 2015

Clearly from the video, the best thing is to sort of amble downstream at a leisurely pace making jokes and filming the whole thing with your camera. Seriously I could barely watch that video; the only way I could stand it was knowing the camera phone wasn't waterproof, so they probably didn't end up drowning.
posted by Nelson at 11:11 AM on November 12, 2015

Hail. In a river. In the desert. Were you going for least likely probability?

On google, it is indeedily-doodily hail... SATAN! But it does appear to be a hailstorm in Iraq.

The Aurora Borealis? At this time of year? At this time of day? In this part of the country? Localized entirely within your kitchen?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:09 PM on November 12, 2015

Damn you, you rusty space tub. Hail it is.
posted by Purposeful Grimace at 10:22 AM on November 16, 2015

We can all agree that whatever it is, it's weird and pissed off.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:37 AM on November 16, 2015

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