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16 People Die In Flash Floods In Desert Southwest


You can drown in a desert. It can happen when a sudden downpour is too much for the dry desert floor to absorb. In southern Utah, Monday night, flood waters sluiced through canyons in Zion National Park. Four hikers died and three are missing. To the south, a wall of water and debris hit two vehicles, killing a dozen in that incident alone. Craig Childs is our next guest. He's author of "The Desert Cries," which is a book that looks at the season of flash flooding in America's desert Southwest. Welcome to the program, sir.

CRAIG CHILDS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: So what is the terrain like that we're describing here?

CHILDS: It's a labyrinth of stone canyons. It's the kind of Road Runner cartoon-like landscape that you might imagine with towers and arches, very exposed, a lot of bare rocks, so places for water to hit and run.

INSKEEP: And there is always a season, every year, when the water will hit and run?

CHILDS: End of summer, and we've had especially heavy rainfall summer. And so you get these big thunderstorms this time of year that can drop a lot of water in one place. And then that water just takes off and heads downstream.

INSKEEP: Have you been out in the desert when that has happened?

CHILDS: Yeah, I spend a lot of time out there. And I look for these floods because they're fascinating to watch. They're extraordinary events, just so much water being shoved through the desert all at once, picking up everything, picking up trees and boulders. You just want to be in the right place, not in the wrong place.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking of you almost like a tornado watcher, people who chase tornadoes.

CHILDS: Yeah, I mean, it's such an event out here that you're in a place that's just absolutely dry and then suddenly, the sky just opens up. And you can be over the horizon away from the storm when it hits. And so you might be under blue skies and then a wall of water can come down one of these canyons out of nowhere.

INSKEEP: Have you ever been on the edge of losing your life while being in these experiences?

CHILDS: Yeah, I have. It's tricky. You don't want to get too close, but then you end up in a narrow space when a flood is coming down. And you can get up on a ledge, but sometimes you can't find the right way out. And I've ended up inside of a couple of floods, swimming with debris, trying to get out. You really - you don't want to end up in them, but they can come out of nowhere.

INSKEEP: And from what you say, I can certainly understand how it would be that people would be caught. You could be tricked by the fact that you are in the desert, and it's not necessarily even raining where you are.

CHILDS: The people who died in Zion were inside of what are called slots, which are these very narrow, twisted, beautiful canyons, some of the most extraordinary landscape that you'll ever see, just, like, walking through these passages of eggshells carved out of the rock. And the eggshells are there because water can run 40, 50, you know, sometimes a hundred feet deep, and that's what lays the groundwork. That's what carves the landscape down into these spectacular formations that you see now.

INSKEEP: Eggshells, you mean these big, kind of scooped out areas of the ground?

CHILDS: Yeah, yeah, just very smooth rock that's - you know, you see this incredible chaos of the floods. You can hear the boulders being pounded down on the bottom of the canyon floor, and it's just a moment of extraordinary violence. But then when the water recedes, you see this beautiful sculpting and fluting left behind.

INSKEEP: So when you heard the news that so many people had died so quickly, what crossed your mind?

CHILDS: Oh, well, it happens. What crossed my mind is actually the terror of it because I have been close to it and I've had experiences where people were killed in the canyon next to me, and I've been asked to watch for bodies coming down to try to find them. And I know that, you know, if you're not familiar with it or even if you are, that kind of natural force bearing down on you - I guess I could feel the just terrible gulp of fear that goes through you when you're in a place like that. And I just think, oh, no, not again.

INSKEEP: Craig Childs is the author of "The Desert Cries." Thanks very much.

CHILDS: Certainly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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