"Human Kindness at it's Best": Havasupai Tribe helps hikers evacuate during Grand Canyon flooding
Deanna Heany shares her experience during the recent flooding and evacuation at Havasupai Falls
SUPAI, Ariz. — Deanna Heany and Ian Doughty had been eagerly waiting for this day for years. The couple had been living full time in their school bus-turned mobile home since last summer. They had already explored Washington, Oregon and California and were thrilled they were finally going to see the crystal blue Havasupai Falls after a two-year closure during the coronavirus pandemic. Little did they know their hike would become a tale of survival.
They arose at 4 a.m. Wednesday, March 15, ready to embark on the 10-mile hike to Havasupai Falls in the Grand Canyon. They arrived at Hualapai Hilltop, the trailhead parking lot for the hike, around 5:30 a.m. and assumed they were first on the trail as they only passed others heading in the opposite direction.
It started to sprinkle, but the moisture was much welcome on the warm hike with their heavy backpacks. As they hiked passed Supai Village on their way to Havasupai Campground, they passed a group of mules and riders heading out. Deanna was in awe as it was the closest she had been to a mule.
Heany and Doughty set up their camp overlooking Mooney Falls, one of the three falls in the area and set out to explore the area. Little did they know the beautiful turquoise waters would soon turn brown.
As they began to head to the falls, rain began pouring down and they decided to call it a night and head out early in the morning.
The rain fell through the night and in the morning the couple noticed the water at the falls was no longer the blue-green water seen the previous day.
Heany recalled waking up Thursday morning and thinking, “I don’t remember the water being gray yesterday; maybe it gets clear with more sun.”
They didn’t expect a flood.
“We knew there was going to be a bit of rain on Wednesday,” she said. “But besides that, the forecast said Thursday, Friday and Saturday were going to be beautiful days.”
After finishing breakfast, the couple set out to explore the area. They were heading out to Beaver Falls when a ranger quickly approached them.
“You guys have 20 minutes to pack up before it floods,” he said. “You have to get out of this area right now.”
Heany and Doughty quickly started packing up as the ranger alerted the rest of the campground and account for all the visitors.
The couple saw helicopters flying in to evacuate campers that had hiked further into the falls and slot canyons
“You just kind of get an adrenaline rush, like we weren’t really thinking or feeling, we were kind of just doing,” Heany said.
With their belongings in a hurried heap on their backs, Heany and Doughty began hiking out of the campground, noticing other campers’ gear that had been left behind.
They tried to help move the gear to higher ground, but when they went back to get a second load, the entire area was flooded to their knees. The ranger then announced that everyone still there needed to hike out to Havasu Falls, the highest point, immediately, Heany said.
She said campers worked together to help everyone get to higher ground. Upon reaching the top, they were unsure how long they’d have to wait. Some campers were relaxing and playing cards while others began to set up camp.
“It wasn’t until we had a calm moment once we got to Havasu Falls that everyone said ‘What now?’” she said. “We were all just like, happy and chillin’ because it was such a beautiful day. The weather was perfect. It was like, ‘how is this happening on such a great, beautiful day?’”
A few hours later, the couple learned that the bridges to the campsites were washed out.
“I think the craziest part is all the rumors we’re hearing,” she said. “Some people started freaking out, saying water is going to start flooding over the top of the canyons and that there’s going to be a tsunami and the reservoir was about to burst.”
When the ranger returned, he made an effort to answer everyone’s questions, Heany said.
“He told us, if you were in serious danger right now, I would definitely not just be standing here with you, which was reassuring,” she said.
She also noted how kindly the local residents treated everyone.
“They were always respectful in the way that they were asking and informing people, even if people weren’t being respectful to them or the land,” she said.
Around 4 p.m. the campers were informed that the water was rising and that they needed to climb up the side of the canyon.
"It wasn’t the most difficult climb we’ve ever done, but the rocks were slippery and we all had some pretty heavy bags,” Heany said.
She said she was impressed with the teamwork, as many of the people overcame their fears and helped pass bags up and offer a hand to ensure everyone made it up safely.
“It was just human kindness at its best,” she said.
Upon reaching the top, local residents arrived on ATVs to transport the 15 remaining campers to Supai Village since it was too difficult to complete the journey on foot.
Heany described the ride back to the village as having “the most beautiful view,” and she said she felt welcomed as they arrived, with children waving and having big smiles on their faces.
When they arrived, the group learned that the helicopter had shut down for the day and would return early the next morning.
Some of the hikers set up camp on the helicopter pad while others stayed inside the nearby cafeteria. Staff and community members provided them with blankets, water and meals, as many had left all their belongings behind in the rush to evacuate, Heany said.
She said that some community members said they were happy to have the visitor return to the area after the two-year closure.
A local man said that during the pandemic it was very quiet.
"(He said) 'We love having people here,'” Heany said. “'Everyone should be able to experience these falls; they’re so beautiful.’”
Coming from a busy Colorado tourist town, Heany said she was surprised by the Supai man’s attitude.
“Traffic was the worst during tourism season, but for the tribe, that’s most of the year,” she said. “It definitely shifted my perspective hearing him say he missed us [visitors].”
The next morning, the hikers lined up early to ensure they could get on the helicopter. Since it was a Saturday, there would only be one helicopter pilot available to fly for a limited time. Staff checked to make sure everyone was accounted for and provided additional meals and coffee for those who needed it.
“It was such a crazy situation, but I think because of the locals’ level of preparedness, Ian and I always felt safe,” Heany said. “The tribe members seemed to know how to handle this type of situation and were prepared for it. So I never thought we weren’t going to make it out. It was more a matter of when can we leave before it gets worse?”
Heany noted that the locals’ calmness and ability to control panic were impressive and made everyone feel better.
“I guess one thing that you learn quickly is just how giving and caring they are," she said.
When asked if there was anything she’d like to say to any tribal members reading this, Heany expressed her gratitude.
“Overall, thank you so much for not only letting us visit these beautiful falls and for essentially saving us from the flood being quick to take action," she said. "And that thank you for the generosity and hospitality; for providing food, water, coffee, a shelter and just for your overall kindness.”
The Havasupai Tribe has a history of helping visitors to the area. Permits to visit the area are highly coveted and pre-pandemic, the tribe received an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 visitors per year to its reservation deep in a gorge west of Grand Canyon National Park.
Visitors can either camp or stay in a lodge and the area is reachable only by foot, helicopter or by riding a horse or mule.
The tribe has dealt with flood damage before. In October 2022, flooding destroyed several bridges and left downed trees on trails necessary for tourists and transportation of goods into Supai Village.
The tribe declared a disaster and President Joe Biden approved a disaster declaration in December, freeing up funds for flood damage. The tribe has been working hard to build a temporary bridge to the campground.
According to the tribe’s Facebook post, as of March 27, the falls are all accessible and slowly returning to the beautiful blue color. FEMA has also reported that the upper bridge is now passable.
Doughty and Heany caught a helicopter ride out of the canyon March 17 and and continued their travels in their “Schooly.”
When asked if she would return to Havasu Falls in the future, Heany responded, “Absolutely!”
See more of Deanna and Ian's experience on TikTok