Be aware of flood dangers at campsites

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By Robert Gorden

The tragic circumstances surrounding the loss of 16 lives in campgrounds and wilderness areas in southwestern Arkansas was due to heavy rains the night of June 10, 2010.

The resulting flash flooding of areas near streams and rivers led to the death of RVers, tent campers, backpackers and cabin users. In that situation apparently the stream waters rose as much as 8 feet in an hour, thereby rising so rapidly that people drowned in their sleep or before they could move to higher ground, climb a tree or scramble on top of their vehicles.

Water is a strong attraction for campers. Many of us like to hear a bubbling stream or roaring river as we relax or prepare for a good night’s rest in a campground or RV park. But, flash floods caused by rainstorms or upstream problems can turn a relaxing weekend getaway into a nightmare.

One of my favorite places to park my own motorhome in Arizona is as close to the Verde River as possible. If a flash flood were to occur there, it would be virtually impossible for me to move my motorhome to higher ground.

In fact, there is evidence that less than 100 feet from my campsite that the river cut into the bank and destroyed several campsites a few years ago.

When I was conducting research on hot springs bacteria in Yellowstone National Park in the late 1970s our RV park was located within a few short miles of Quake Lake, Mont. Quake Lake was formed when an earthquake in 1959 caused the collapse of the walls of a canyon through which the Madison River flowed, thereby damming the flow of the River.

A large campground was located along the Madison and was filled to capacity the night of the earthquake. Dozens of people were drowned as the river waters were dammed and the campground was flooded. An unknown number were killed and the identity of many of those campers remains unknown.

This was another instance when and where it was virtually impossible to escape the rising flood waters.

Others have told me that the New River, north of Phoenix, flooded a campground within the past few years, although no one was killed or injured.

At the Johnson Shut Ins State Park, Lesterville, MO, the dam controlling a reservoir on top of the mountain burst in 2005, releasing the reservoir waters to flood and destroy the campground and park buildings. Fortunately, this happened during the winter months and no one was injured. It has taken several years and much funding to rebuild the dam and the campground.

In March 2015, the Oak Creek in Sedona, Ariz., flooded and damaged several campsites in the Page Springs RV Park in essentially the same location as a flood that occurred there several years ago, taking several stored RVs in a downstream wipeout.

Two years ago, nine people were killed in a flash flood at a popular swimming area in Arizona.

These examples demonstrate conclusively that flash flooding and river overflow may happen practically anywhere, anytime and for various reasons.

Certainly we each take risks in our daily lives and will continue to do so. However, there are times when we are too trusting of the situation and fail to realize the high risk factors involved.

Fortunately, many campers were aware of the heavy rainfall in the surrounding watershed and there were several people who vacated their campsites or who did not go camping because of the potential danger.

So, what are the possible solutions to avoid a similar fate?

First, be aware of the potential dangers of each campsite and park your RV or tent above or away from the danger. If there is a heavy rainfall, high winds, tornadoes and similar dangerous situations, it may be wise to move, leave the campground and find a safer location.

I recall parking my RV, with my family, along the Arkansas River in Colorado in the 1970s, when a very heavy rainfall and windstorm took place. I awoke at 2 a.m. and moved my RV and family to a safer location.

Second, try to avoid the worst case scenarios for a particular location. You will be safe more than 99% of the time, but please try to avoid the 1% of the situations that may lead to disaster and death. The simplest thing to do is to ensure your RV is parked in a way that allows you to leave quickly, without backing up, should the water rise.

Finally, take time to pack a “grab-and-go” bag with clothes, money, a flashlight, important phone numbers or documents, and some light snacks like food bars. If you hear sirens blaring warning of a impending flash flood, you won’t have time to scramble to gather these essentials before you leave.

With just a little pre-planning, you can ensure that your RVing vacation doesn’t turn into a disaster.

Robert Gorden

Robert Gorden

Dr. Robert Gorden is a retired environmental engineer and head of the Aquatic Biology Department at the University of Illinois. Today, he is a frequent RVer who enjoys travel writing.

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