Flash floods devastated Death Valley National Park last October, leaving portions of the park under several feet of mud. The series of unusual storms that hit Death Valley temporarily closed over 300 miles of roads and resulted in millions of dollars worth of damage.
To help the park rebuild, staff from more than 50 national parks across the country pitched in to offer their expertise in different fields ranging from archeology to mapping and road repair. These are a few stories of the many people who stepped up to help the park recover:
Death Valley’s landscape tells a story of thousands of years of human history. Flood waters cut deep channels in some areas, eroding places where artifacts had been located. Juanita Bonnifield, an archaeologist at Lassen Volcanic National Park, spent two weeks investigating how the flood damaged archeological resources like historic roads, trash dumps and everything in-between. As part of a team of four -- all from other national parks -- she surveyed more than 50 archaeological sites to see how the landscape had changed and if artifacts were still there. With the information Juanita gathered, park managers will decide how best to protect these important cultural pieces of our shared history for future generations.
Floods, along with rock and mud slides, closed more than 400 miles of roads at Death Valley. Paul Hardwick, a geospatial analyst responsible for digital mapping at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, created maps of road openings and closings and building damage to give incident managers a clear picture of progress on recovery. Each morning for three weeks, half a dozen field staff would give Paul “scribbles on maps” that he then synthesized on a computer. “I made a map and people used it right away -- it’s instant gratification,” Paul said. His maps of damage around Scotty’s Castle helped managers decide where to prioritize repairs, while archeologists like Juanita used his photo maps when conducting surveys. This wasn’t Paul’s first time mapping data in an emergency -- he’s also mapped fires in southern California.
As a member of the Northeast Region's Museum Emergency Response Team, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site’s archivist Anthony Reed said he loves going to other parks to help out in times of crisis. The flood damaged part of Death Valley’s museum collection and exposed items to threats of mold and rodents. Anthony and his team assessed damage and moved hundreds of objects and archival collections -- architectural drawings, furniture, woven baskets -- to safer storage. For 10 long days, Anthony carefully packed historic materials into vehicles and drove to the park’s climate-controlled curatorial offices, where he placed artifacts in their new homes. Trips like the one to Death Valley not only allow Anthony to use his expertise in an emergency, but also to learn from fellow employees and see up close the cultural objects and beautiful places the National Park Service protects.
Engineering equipment operators like Jeffrey Jewhurst, a Roads Supervisor at Point Reyes National Seashore, moved about 500,000 tons -- or 5 Washington Monuments -- worth of debris from park roads. Jeffrey operated heavy equipment that scraped away up to 4 feet of mud and dirt, and then used that same dirt to fill in places that had been washed away. In a week, Jeffrey helped clear about 8 miles, making passable parts of Badwater and Harry Wade Roads, which lead to a southern entrance of the park. All the while, he had to deal with Death Valley’s unique weather events like a sandstorm. “This is just wild,” he remembered thinking. Jeffrey said he enjoys assisting his colleagues: “It’s nice to know we have a network of people who are working towards the same goals all across the country.”
Where heavy equipment couldn’t reach, hand crews got the job done. Chris Allen, a Trail Crew Lead, oversaw a 10-person trail crew from Glacier National Park that has traveled nationwide to help with disaster relief, from the Everglades after Hurricane Wilma to New York following Hurricane Sandy. Chris -- who has worked for the National Park Service for 36 seasons -- and his crew removed 4 feet of dirt and mud from park buildings. They cleared out the rooms of Scotty’s Castle and restored the grounds to their appearance before the floods. Chris’ crew also worked to reopen Mesquite Springs Campground, where visitors are now enjoying nights under the stars. Trail crews from Yosemite, Point Reyes and Mesa Verde national parks also assisted with recovery at Death Valley.
For more information on recovery efforts at Death Valley, visit the park’s website.