Deaths at swimming hole raise questions about flood warnings

Volunteer rescuers from Navajo County begin searching for a missing 27-year-old man in Tonto National Forest, Ariz., Monday, July 17, 2017. The man was swept downriver with more than a dozen others when floodwaters inundated the area on Saturday. (AP Photo/Angie Wang)

TONTO NATIONAL FOREST, Ariz. (AP) — The deaths of nine people who were swept away in a flash flood at a swimming hole in central Arizona have raised questions about whether the government should have done more to warn the public about the dangers of floodwaters in wilderness areas.

The nine people who died and a man who remains missing were swept away Saturday after a torrent of water from a thunderstorm upstream roared through the Tonto National Forest. Officials say members of an extended family who died in the flood had no warning about the approaching surge of water.

The storm dumped up to 1.5 inches (3.8 centimeters) of rain in an hour, prompting a flash flood warning from the National Weather Service. Though the service sent out a flash-flood warning over cellphone networks, service in the remote area is patchy at best. Unless they had a weather radio, the swimmers would have been unaware.

Crews, meanwhile, spent four hours Tuesday searching for 27-year-old Hector Miguel Garnica, whose wife, three young children and extended family members were killed in the flood. His family gathered at the mountain swimming hole about 100 miles (160 kilometers) northeast of Phoenix to celebrate his wife’s birthday.

The search was suspended over concerns that thunderstorms moving through the area Tuesday would cause more flooding. It’s scheduled to resume Wednesday.

Crews had hoped that Hector Garnica would still be alive. But Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management spokeswoman Tiffany Davila said crews who have searched for Garnica for three days now believe they are working a recovery effort.

Officials have said people headed to wilderness areas should check weather alerts ahead of time to determine whether it’s safe. They note that it’s hard to predict where rain will fall in the desert Southwest, and people should know that heavy downpours can cause flash flooding.

Even so, that hasn’t stopped people from saying more should be done to protect the public from flash floods.

Steve Stevens, a volunteer firefighter with the nearby Water Wheel Fire and Medical District, said there needs to be a way for visitors to get flash flood alerts on their phones.

Stevens, who has lived in the area for 20 years, said the fire station and local church have extenders that provide cell service to the area around those two locations, but it needs to cover the whole forest.

There is no system currently in place to specifically warn people about the potential dangers of flash floods at the Tonto National Forest, said Forest Service spokeswoman Carrie Templin.

“If our employees happen to be out in the forest at the time, and they hear a weather warning, they share that with members of the public they may cross,” she said. There are also signs posted around the forest that warn of hazardous conditions, including potential flash floods.

Templin said there isn’t a more comprehensive system in place to alert people because the forest is more than 3 million acres and there are over 5,000 roads.

Because there is a potential for a flash flood at any time, it would be “incredibly difficult, if not impossible” to close parts of the forest when flash flood warnings are issued, Templin said.

Detective Sgt. David Hornung of the Gila County Sheriff’s Office said his agency has no plans to add warning signs or close the forest during monsoon season.

“I’m not trying to be negative, but you could put up all the signs you want, and people are going to still want to come in here and recreate. We have a hard time, when they close the forest due to fire restrictions, of keeping people out,” Hornung said.

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AP reporters Clarice Silber and Paul Davenport in Phoenix and Michael Balsamo in Los Angeles also contributed to this report.

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