FLAGSTAFF – The Havasupai Tribe, hit by flooding that shut down the lifeline of the community, is eager to have visitors return to its reservation deep in a gorge off the Grand Canyon.
About 100 tribal members have been working since mid-August to clear debris from a campground and the miles-long trail that leads to cascading blue-green waterfalls and the village that is home to about 400 people.
The tribe has said it wouldn’t reopen to tourists until next spring, but with a $1 million donation from the California-based San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians on Thursday, Havasupai Chairman Don Watahomigie said it could be sooner.
“If we can bring on more tribal members and get more of a work force, we can certainly try to speed up the opening of the camping area and be able to bring in tourists,” he said.
Those who had reservations to stay at the popular tourist destination had to cancel or reschedule their trips and the tribe had to issue some refunds after flood waters rushed through the village of Supai.
San Manuel Band members watched as TV footage showed hundreds being evacuated via helicopter. Chairman James Ramos said the tribe can relate to the hardship. In the 1980s, a flood washed out the tribe’s sewer lines, and it was months before the lines were repaired.
“We feel very good about helping our brothers and sisters,” Ramos said. “We believe this needs to happen. Who knows when we might be on the other side of the fence?”
Other tribes have chipped in, too. The Hualapai Tribe, which took in evacuees after the flooding, donated 10 percent of its proceeds over four weekends to the Havasupai.
John Lewis, director of the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, said his staff was able to coordinate relief efforts, assess the damage and communicate with state and federal agencies about what the priorities should be.
The entire Havasupai reservation is dependent on tourism, from the lodge, the café and the store to the people who pack camping gear onto the backs of mules headed up and down the trail. Watahomigie said tribal members have been unable to generate income for their families.
Part of the tribe’s recovery plan is to provide emergency assistance to those families. It also includes rebuilding infrastructure, updating its emergency response plan and installing an early warning system.
The canyon is accessible only by foot, helicopter or mule, making it crucial to have as much of a heads-up as possible when floods are approaching so that people can seek higher ground.
Watahomigie said the tribe is planning to install a system that would set off a siren to warn tourists and tribal members when a flood could be approaching.
“It’s a distance of two miles down to the camping area from where the main village is, so we want to make sure that the camping area and the people camping there will be able to hear this siren or whatever it is,” he said.
When tourists do return, they no longer will see Navajo Falls, one of four large waterfalls in Havasu Canyon. The flood waters eroded and redeposited sediment in a way that redirected the water past the falls.
“The water still flows, but it flows over a gentle area, so it doesn’t actually cascade over the falls anymore,” said John Hoffman, director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Arizona Water Science Center in Tucson. “Certainly it’s no longer one of those spots that tourists will walk to because it doesn’t exist.”
At another waterfall, 50-Foot Falls, the travertine eroded, causing the waterfall to move back closer to the community, Hoffman said.
Watahomigie said the tribe has had an outpouring of support from tourists, who have sent both prayers and donations to the tribe. Others are on standby, ready to help rebuild foot trails and infrastructure to restore the economic base.
“We really don’t have that much of an area where we can accommodate a lot of the volunteers who want to come in, so we’re holding off on that,” he said.