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A look at the damage from Death Valley’s record-breaking rainfall

DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK — After record-breaking rain brought enough flooding and extensive damage to close down Death Valley National Park late last month, it’s not clear when visitors will be allowed to return, park officials said Thursday.

As crews worked to repair washed-out roads from the Aug. 20 rainfall, which dumped about a year’s worth of rain – 2.2 inches, on the national park in a single day, officials gave journalists a first-hand look at some of the destruction.

California State Route 190, the main artery through Death Valley, has too many sections of damage to count, said a spokesperson with the state’s Department of Transportation.

The total cost to fix that road, as well as State Route 136, which meets up with State Route 190 west of the national park, will be at least $6 million, said Caltrans spokesperson Christopher Andriessen.

“Right now we are aiming for three months to restore service fully to State Route 190,” Andriessen said. “It will open in parts. As we complete work, we will open up sections of it.”

About 600 miles of the park’s total 1,400 miles of paved and unpaved backcountry roads were still being checked for damage, said Death Valley park ranger Matthew Lamar.

So far, about 200 miles’ worth of roads have shown signs of being affected by the storm, Lamar said. There are varying degrees of damage. In many stretches, chunks of asphalt are broken off from the flood waters having eroded the road’s foundation. In other spots, layers of debris completely cover the road surface.

All of the park’s paved and unpaved roads are closed. All entry and exit points are shut, as are all campgrounds.

National Park Service staff said they were still assessing the damage on Thursday, and that there was no timeline for when the national park might reopen.

“We are the driest place in North America, and we got a year’s worth of rain in 24 hours,” Lamar said.

The record rain came as Tropical Storm Hilary, a rare southwest U.S. named storm, soaked parts of California and Nevada including Mount Charleston, where damage was also extensive, according to the National Weather Service’s Las Vegas office.

It may not sound like a lot, but on average Death Valley gets just 2.24 inches in an entire year, according to the federal government’s Western Regional Climate Center. It’s not a place that is used to that much rain in a day.

The Aug. 20 rain also trapped 400 people in the park for about 12 hours, Lamar said. Until crews from the Caltrans and National Park Service were able to clear a lane of floodwater debris from State Route 190, those people sheltered in place.

It’s the second time in two years that record rain has closed the 3.4-million acre national park, which is about a one-hour drive from Pahrump.

Hilary’s rainfall broke the previous record of 1.7 inches of rain, which was set just over a year earlier, on Aug. 5, 2022. That rainfall event also caused historic damage and stranded about 1,000 people — about 500 visitors and another 500 workers and staffers — inside the park.

Parks officials said that some of the roads that were repaired after the 2022 rainfall are again in need of repair.

Death Valley has seen its share of tragic and unusual occurrences so far this year.

In July, a 71-year-old man who had been hiking in the park died after speaking with an L.A. Times reporter about the extreme heat.

That same month, about 5,000 gallons of emulsified asphalt and 150 gallons of diesel were spilled in the park after a tractor-trailer crashed.

In May, the National Park Service announced that 10,000 marijuana plants worth about $7 million were found at an illegal growing operating in Jail Canyon on the western slope of the Panamint Mountains in the national park.

In late April, a rabid bat bit a woman outside the Stovepipe Wells general store. The woman was treated for rabies exposure.

Contact Brett Clarkson at bclarkson@reviewjournal.com

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