Earlier this month, a tornado ripped through an RV park in Oklahoma sending 16 people to the hospital. The tragic circumstances surrounding the loss of lives in campgrounds and wilderness areas in southwestern Arkansas was due to heavy rains the night of June 10, 2010. The resulting flash flooding of areas near streams and rivers has led to the death of 16 or more RVers, tent campers, backpackers and cabin users.
In that situation apparently the stream waters rose as much as 8 feet in an hour, thereby rising so rapidly that people were drowned in their sleep or before they could move to higher ground, climb a tree or on the top of their vehicle.
Water is a strong attraction for campers. Many of us like to hear a bubbling stream or roaring river as we relax or prepare for a good night’s rest in a campground or RV park. At this writing my own motorhome was parked as close to the Verde River as possible. If a flash flood were to occur here it would be virtually impossible for me to move my motorhome to higher ground. In fact, there is evidence that less than 100 feet from my campsite that the river cut into the bank and destroyed several campsites a few years ago.
When I was conducting research on hot springs bacteria in Yellowstone National Park in the late 1970s, our RV park was located within a few short miles of Quake Lake, Mont. Quake Lake was formed when an earthquake caused the collapse of the walls of a canyon through which the Madison River flowed, thereby damming the flow of the River. A large campground was located along the Madison and was filled to capacity the night of the earthquake. Dozens of people were drowned as the river waters were dammed and the campground was flooded. An unknown number were killed and the identity of many of those campers remains unknown. This was another instance when and where it was virtually impossible to escape the rising flood waters.
Others have told me that the New River, north of Phoenix, flooded a campground within the past few years, although no one was killed or injured. At the Johnson Shut Ins State Park, Lesterville, Mo., the dam for the perched reservoir on top of the mountain burst, releasing the reservoir waters to flood and destroy the campground and park buildings. Fortunately, this happened during the winter months and no one was injured. It has taken several years and much funding to rebuild the dam and the campground. Within the past month of March, 2015 the Oak Creek, Sedona, AZ has flooded and damaged several camp sites in the Page Springs RV park in essentially the same location as a flood that occurred there several years ago, taking several stored RVs in a downstream wipeout.
These examples demonstrate conclusively that flash flooding and river overflow may happen practically anywhere, anytime and for various reasons. Certainly we each take risks in our daily lives and will continue to do so. However, there are times when we are too trusting of the situation and fail to realize the high risk factors involved. Fortunately, many campers were aware of the heavy rainfall in the surrounding watershed and there were several people who vacated their campsites or who did not go camping because of the potential danger.
So, what are the possible solutions to avoid a similar fate? Be aware of the potential dangers of each camp site and park your RV or tent above or away from the danger. If there is a heavy rainfall, high winds, tornadoes and similar dangerous situations, it may be wise to move, leave the campground and find a safer location. I recall parking my RV, with my family, along the Arkansas River in Colorado in the 1970s, when a very heavy rainfall and windstorm took place. I awoke at 2 a.m. and moved my RV and family to a safer location.
Try to avoid the worst case scenarios for a particular location. You will be safe more than 99 percent of the time, please try to avoid the 1 percent of the situations that may lead to disaster and death. At the very least, download an app so your cell phone can receive emergency weather alerts for your area. Or, if you are camping in remote areas, a weather band radio is essential.