Colorado Floods: Small Town Disaster Update

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Flooding in downtown Estes Park, Colorado. Photo by eyewitness Ulugbeck Khudoynazarov, used with permission. All rights reserved.

At 9:58 a.m. on September 12, 2013, the warnings appeared on the National Weather Service website with a series of ominous phrases, such as “heavy rainfall” and “saturated soil.”

Flooding in Colorado

Many residents of Loveland and Fort Collins in the Colorado foothills work in nearby small mountain towns such as Longmont, Estes Park, and Lyons. They leave early in the morning for the fastest route to Estes Park, driving on Hwy 34 through the narrow Big Thompson Canyon with its towering walls of solid rock.

For these commuters the warnings came too late. They were trapped in their vehicles when a wide section of Hwy 34 collapsed and trucks and cars crashed into the river. As the morning progressed, and the rain continued to fall, five dams overflowed in Lyons, and the streets of Lyons, Boulder, Estes Park, disappeared beneath walls of water and mud.

Suddenly the “heavy rainfall” warning changed to photos on the morning news of a child clinging to her mother as the two stood shivering on top of their car, and another photo of a fireman trapped in a tree by flood waters. He was quickly rescued by the National Guard.

Then the heart-wrenching announcement of three confirmed deaths and one missing woman whose car was last seen tumbling through the muddy waters. Just as quickly as the You Tube videos appeared showing students at the University of Colorado in Boulder biking through dangerous, contaminated water or riding on inner tubes while first responders risked their lives to try and keep them safe, the University announced it was dangerously flooded, damaged, and closed.

This was only the beginning. In Lyons, residents used the city’s Facebook page to search for family and friends, referring to the disaster as a “500 year flood.”

The National Weather Service reported that a 20 foot wall of water crashed through one Boulder County canyon. Additional deaths were reported from mudslides in Jamestown, which is located between Boulder and Lyons.

Anatomy of a Colorado Flood

Much of what is happening in central Colorado right now involves the terrain of that area of the Colorado Rocky Mountains where there are many narrow canyons with steep walls.

In some areas, such as Boulder, the rains started falling three days ago. Winds were coming in from the east and north, lifting the warm air and creating heavy rainfall.

Additional winds coming from the north near Denver moved upward against the mountain slopes producing even more heavy rain. These storms stalled over the mountain towns, sending large amounts of rain in a small period of time that was channeled into the narrow canyons and up the canyon walls.

The phrase “heavy rain” used in the National Weather Service warnings turned out to be a bit of an understatement. As of 9 p.m. on September 12, 2013 Aurora had 11.88 inches of rainfall; Boulder had 11. 66 inches of rainfall; Louisville had 10.21 inches of rainfall, all in less than 24 hours. The heavy rains are familiar to many long-time residents of Colorado still feeling the pain of past floods, such as the 1976 Big Thompson Flood and the Spring Creek Flood that occurred in Fort Collins in 1997.

Fort Collins is already preparing for the worst. Predictions of anywhere from two to eight inches of rain over the next few days have inspired city managers to close all bike and recreation trails near springs and rivers and residents are encouraged to monitor the rainfall and assess potential dangers by accessing the city’s real time gauge data at the city’s Flood Warning System Page.

Colorado Flash Floods: Current Status

As of 2 a.m. on September 13, 2013, there are Flash Flood Warnings until 8 a.m. for Larimer County, including Campion, Estes Park, and Loveland; Flash Flood Warnings until 6 a.m. for Boulder and Jefferson Counties, including Boulder, Golden, and Louisville until 6 a.m.

A warning means that flooding is already in progress. Of course if the rain continues the warnings will continue, as well.

Colorado Residents: Stories of the Floods

Marcy DiBenedetto, Loveland resident and mother of two young children, first became concerned for the safety of her husband around 9 a.m. on the morning of September 12, 2013. She listened to the rain outside her window the night before when her husband, Anthony DiBenedetto, a night crew manager for Safeway in Estes Park, left their home for his nightly drive up the highway toward Estes Park.

The following morning, Marcy sensed that the rain was heavier than usual. Then Anthony called around 9 a.m. the following morning to tell her the highway was closed due to flooding. When Marcy tried to reach him on his cell phone an hour later, she received a text message telling her to phone the store. When she called the store she learned that the phone lines in Estes Park were also down-she was completely cut off from her husband.

After hours of stress and worry, Marcy called another friend who works in Estes Park and was told to try Facebook. She was finally able to reach her husband on Facebook at 2:30 in the afternoon. He told her he was safe at a nearby hotel. “I didn’t know where to call or where to look for information on the flooding, but I had support from family and friends through it all,” she said. “I was loved and cared for, but I still felt major anxiety. I was afraid the water had reached his work. I was afraid he wasn’t safe. I don’t think I will truly be at peace or feel any kind of comfort until he is home.

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