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Floods Kill 2, Close Death Valley Park

A desert thunderstorm washes out roads, buries cars in mud and downs power and phone lines.

August 17, 2004|Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writer

Death Valley National Park was closed Monday in the wake of a desert storm that sent flash flood waters and rivers of mud rushing across roads, claiming two lives, overturning cars and knocking out power and phone service.

Visitors were escorted to the west entrance in car convoys dodging chunks of washed-out asphalt. Officials predicted it would be at least Wednesday before portions of the park reopened, and said stretches of some roads could remain closed for weeks or more.

The worst damage was to California 190 where it follows the path of a wash between Furnace Creek, the location of the main visitor accommodations, and Zabriskie Point, one of the park's most famous overlooks.

More than a dozen cars washed out there, some of them completely buried in mud, said Inyo County Undersheriff Jack Goodrich. Most occupants apparently escaped unharmed, but rescuers found the bodies of a man and a woman in one of the vehicles.

"They tried to drive out and didn't make it," Goodrich said. The car is registered to a Downey resident, according to the California Highway Patrol, but authorities were withholding the names of the dead until family members were notified.

The CHP dispatched a helicopter and small plane Monday morning to search for cars marooned by the flooding and sheets of mud that dotted the sprawling park. "It's all over the park," said Supt. J.T. Reynolds.

The thunderstorm struck after 6 p.m. Sunday, streaking the horizon with lightning and releasing half an inch or more of rain, which gushed over the park's canyons and barren slopes.

With an average rainfall of slightly less than 2 inches, Death Valley is the driest spot in North America and one of the hottest on the planet. But when the weather changes, it can do so dramatically, sending rock-filled streams unexpectedly rushing across the desert floor.

"We're surrounded by mountains. All of these mountains have canyons and the water hits those canyons and there's nothing in there to keep it at bay," Reynolds said.

"When the clouds burst and send that water down, it's carrying everything in its path -- rock, mud and debris. It's just like a mud flow."

Debris ruptured a pipe attached to a 2-million-gallon water tank that serves the Furnace Creek Inn & Ranch Resort, draining the tank and pushing a small flood of water and mud toward the ranch.

The historic Spanish-themed inn was closed for the summer season, but the ranch's 224 rooms were almost completely booked Sunday night. Guest rooms lost power and air conditioning, but backup generators kept the public areas open -- and filled.

In the face of nature, guests were understanding. "They go to the bar, they go to the restaurant, they hang out," said hotel manager Toni Jepson.

Guests, mostly Europeans who are the park's main patrons during the searing summer season, all left Monday morning. The ranch will remain closed until the water pipe is repaired and the mud shoveled out.

"It's all over the Furnace Creek Ranch," Jepson said. "It's being cleaned up as we speak, using fire trucks and brooms and shovels."

About 20 rooms had some water damage, but nothing serious, Jepson said, adding that it would take until at least the middle of the week to complete the cleanup and repair.

Much of California 190 throughout the park is completely closed. Park officials said the first areas to reopen later in the week probably would be Stovepipe Wells and the road to Scotty's Castle. They said park access probably would be from Beatty, Nev.

The storm downed power and phone lines throughout much of Death Valley. Southern California Edison used helicopters to ferry in replacement poles, and restored service about 5:30 p.m. Monday.

The storm accomplished one good thing, knocking the temperature down from the peak of 125 degrees it reached last week to less than 100.

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