In Oct 11 2019 a young couple died in a flash flood in the Espiritu Santo river. As an expert in EYNF and this river in particular, I made this blog to prevent this in the future. It can help visitors to be informed and guides to expand their skill set.
Just an intro:
This is a long topic - so I will just start with some basic info and later will flesh up the contents, or make related blog posts. ES means Espiritu Santo river.
First this was unnecessary - it was not really an accident - in my opinion its simply the worst combo of greed, ignorance and negligence.
For the victims it was ignorance, for the guide greed and ignorance, for Airbnb it was all three - ignorance, greed and negligence. I hope this gets investigated and possibly Airbnb sued for criminal negligence.
For background lets see a small flash flood (yes - small - it is in the upper river. Below it becomes Rio Blanco and has killed quite a few people...)
Lets see the news:
A young couple celebrating their anniversary in Puerto Rico were killed when they were caught in a flash flood earlier this month.
Maya Lane Robinson, of Concord, Massachusetts, and Mark Keffer, both 22, drowned Oct. 11 in the Espíritu Santo (ES) river, the river of the Holy Spirit, at El Yunque National Rainforest (EYNF).
The couple was staying in a rental apartment through Airbnb and booked a tour of the rainforest on Oct. 11 through the vacation rental site, according to MassLive. They left for the tour around 8 a.m.
They were caught in the flood later that afternoon, El Nuevo Dia reports. The tour guide survived and reported the couple missing.
--- end of news
My quick analysis:
What does Airbnb knows about El Yunque? Nothing.
Who are they to find qualified guides?
Normal guides take visitors to safe trails and smaller streams in the UPPER (over 2,000 feet) of EYNF. There floods are less likely and weaker. So i tend to believe this was negligence on the part of Airbnb assuming they collected for the whole package.
This loving couple are now dead - and this is not a small matter - all of PR should be concerned about how we treat visitors. For me it may have been a crime of negligence by Airbnb and to some degree of the guide.
In law an act of God can not be avoided.
But the fact that this couple, ignorant of PR, were taken on a VERY rainy season to the LOWER parts of a VERY LARGE river, outside of the normal tourism zones, is very suspect and irresponsible.
Therefore it could easily be prevented by not getting close to the river. It was NOT an act of God, it was an ignorant and stupid action. And their family deserve a fair investigation so this does not keep happening.
Every day thousands of people visit el Yunque and they come out safe - even in rainy weather - so in this case something was done that was not right and we need to know the facts.
My background in El Yunque:
First i know well that river, i have many canvas and products of it when it starts way above, and have spent over 20 days on it - camping and exploring. Actually in those sections when it gets flooded is not very dangerous - it just gets muddy, but the stream is too small to be a danger.
The only way they could have accessed it (this river) normally for visitors is via El Verde OR THE GREEN. This is the LOWER part of El Yunque, road PR 186 - right side when going up. Many rivers cross this road, but since its the lower section of the forest ALL THESE RIVERS ARE LARGE AND POTENTIALLY DANGEROUS IN THIS SECTION. Actually they have destroyed this road many times, last time is took years to rebuild it...
This river ES in particular has a very large basin, so it can collect a huge amount of water in a heavy rain fall.
Some FACTS 1ST you need to know:
1. In may areas of EYNF there is no cell reception.
2. Avoid the place if any hurricane is forming near.
3. EYNF gets over 180 inches of rain a year, the peaks 200 inches.
4. The heaviest rain is in the upper mountains - may not be visible in lower roads.
5. Rain is cumulative - if it has rained a lot before it does count.
6. Quite a few people have died from flash floods,usually with 'guides'. Their bodies are recovered miles away from the event.
TRICK#0 - The USFS must place better signs warning of flash floods where needed. Even better - place stronger temporary signs after intense rains.
TRICK#1 - Review USGS river data:
Fact 1: ES has a huge Drainage area of 8.7 square miles - big for PR.
Any guide or river visitor or explorer in El Yunque should know that the USGS has monitoring for all major rivers, including the Espiritu Santo (Holy Spirit). Here is the direct link to it.
Thus one can examine this info and see that it reports water levels before today and any peak in the chart means a flood. If the peak is sharp then its a flash flood. Often these peaks come in clusters, as the rain accumulates.
On this system this river is under these headings:
50063800 - RIO ESPIRITU SANTO NR RIO GRANDE, PR
See the data below from the USGS (learn to navigate this system, is easy, just select the range of dates and there are 2 types of charts - rain and water level-these two are clear indicators of any flooding issues.)
Note that for the flash floods below (2nd chart near the end) around Oct 20 there were several smaller peaks - the precursors were starting. THE PEAKS GOT CLOSE TO 1,000 CUBIC FEET of water PER SECOND!
Clear signals NOT to get close to that river. These levels are in the lower parts of the rivers. The 1st chart shows the level of rain was increasing steadily - A VERY NEGATIVE SIGN.
Seems it rained 15 inches on those days - every day!
The couple was killed in Oct 11 in the afternoon.
In the 2nd chart we see a huge isolated peak in Oct 12. Now in data analysis we need to see the large scale patterns (above) which shows many floods - about 10 large ones in 3 months. So that is approx 10/90 days or a probability of 11% a VERY high probability for this season. It is actually a lot worse if we see the clusters of peaks...
Now to really be sure about the key date - Oct 11 we need a closeup as large scale charts can be misleading.
Now we see the details on Oct 11. The peak started REALLY FAST in Oct 11. For sure this was the deadly peak. There was no warning before. Thus the deaths.
The best indicator of danger here is the accumulation of rain and that this river can grow fast as we see on the large scale chart - there were 2 large peaks around Sept 20. The increasing rain created an ideal flooded ground ready to discharge any significant rain to the small and large streams that make ES. The rain before the even was a steady 15 inches per DAY!
And for how long?
From Sept 19 to Oct 11 we have 22 days of 15 inches each - HUGE!
THE MYSTERY: Is why it all came down on Oct 11 - that is a good challenge! It may depend on something we do not measure - the rate of rainfall per hour...
So if you see these peaks in the large scale chart - know it can be deadly.
The sharpness of the peaks tells you there will be little warning.
--- the ES basin:
And the huge basin (all the rain here flows into this river) of this river:
TRICK#2 - Be very aware of recent weather - the last week
Visitors to the lower parts of rivers MUST be aware of the recent weather in the zone - El Yunque, east coast and PR.
If there have been many rains in the days or weeks before visiting it means the land in the forest is totally soaked and will not hold more rain. If it then rains (and it can be in the upper sections not clearly visible to you) immediately the water from all that zone will rush to the river. Note - all land in the upper parts of EYNF is always wet. It never dries up.
So simply avoid going to these rivers during rainy times. And it was well known that this period of the year is A WET SEASON IN EL YUNQUE. Actually most of the rain can be local to it - happens in and around EYNF, the weather service will not report this since its not a general pattern. I live close to EYNF and I see that.
Personal note - later a separate blog - Last Rio Sabana exploration:
It's another story but a few weeks ago i was trapped in the Rio Sabana trails by two rivers that used to be small. I stupidly risked my life in crossing them, but i did take a lot of precautions, in one i placed a rope across and for the second one i just crawled holding the edge of the small bridge to avoid being taken by the current. It was stupid, i could have waited several hours, but it seemed then the rain would not stop and i was very familiar with the region - as i has slept precisely in that small bridge before. But in the trail I saw about 6 large flooded streams simply because of so much sudden rain in a soaked forest. Here we have a video of how the river looked when I got to the park.
TRICK#3 - note the type of rain
In EYNF there are many types of rain. Such as local or island wide, hurricane and storms in the area, shallow rain of small drops that may last 10 min to 1 day, or the main one here - intense downpours that last several hours and can cause sudden floods. Rains that start and go, and rains the go on for hours.
In this type of weather NEVER GET CLOSE TO THE LOWER SECTIONS OF RIVERS. La coca trail is were many get trapped because it crosses 3 rivers, and the last - Mameyes is the biggest. The image above is Gabi in Mameyes in Puente Roto. In summary the US winter months - starting in Oct is rainy season in El Yunque.
TRICK#4 - know the signs
It is well known to watch for this in a river:
1-leaves starts coming down the water
2-water turns brown. even if a little.
3-level of water increases
4-a loud sound or rocks becomes audible.
5-it has become clouded and dark, even if it does not rain where you are
6. It has been raining for the last few days
7. The place is empty - so native people know better?
TRICK#5 - rain and boulders
If you get across boulders, think - what happens if it rains and they get wet? Can i get back safely? So consider rain may come any time.
TRICK#6 - be sober
Do not use alcohol in the forest - it will not help at all.
If there is some danger, warn all to be close and near the shore, and ready to run to safety if any of the signs come up.
TRICK#7 - WAIT:
Puerto Rico has excellent rescue personnel, really professional. If trapped just wait for help or the water level to come down to normal. You can sleep overnight if needed - there is no cold season here.
SEEING A FLASH FLOOD:
Very few have SEEN a flash flood and survived.
I did see one once. The park was flooded and everyone was expelled.
On the way out in PR 186 we stopped as i asked for a chance to see the flooded river nearby. I walked there and was SHOCKED. It was inches from going over the road (all these rivers have bridges).
THE FORCE WAS SO INCREDIBLE THAT I WAS SHAKING WITH FEAR. IF IT GOT ME THE DEATH WOULD BE IN AN INSTANT. ALSO THIS WATER IS FILLED WITH MUD AND BOULDERS...
I rest my case.