On the Ground in Colorado: Digging Out After the Deluge

Loss of life and property are far from the only consequences of the 'biblical' Colorado floods

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Courtesy Tom Yulsman

A medical office building lies crushed and torn apart by a debris flow in Boulder Canyon, Co., Sept. 13, 2013.

There’s an eerie feel to whole stretches of the Colorado foothills today. The smell of molder mixed with whiffs of sewage rise from draining farm fields just west of where I live in the little town of Niwot. Strange surf-like sounds emanate from the cottonwood groves lining our creeks on the high plains at the foot of Colorado’s flooded Front Range. A building at the mouth of Boulder Canyon lies crushed and sundered by what is usually an intermittent natural spring that was transformed by relentless storm runoff into a rampaging monster of water, mud and boulders.

The senses are by no means the only way to tell the story of the Colorado deluge. The numbers tell it too: For this semi-arid region, the 15 inches (38 cm) or more of precipitation that fell over the span of just a few days in some spots was, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data, a one-in-a-thousand-year rainfall event.

Six people have been confirmed dead as of Sept. 17; another 306 are still unaccounted for or missing (a number that has been steadily dropping with continuing rescue efforts); 1,502 homes have been destroyed, and another 17,494 were damaged as of Sept 16, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); 11,750 residents were evacuated in four counties, many by helicopter from small mountain towns cut off when roads washed out.

(MOREThe Science Behind Colorado’s Thousand-Year Flood)

The story can also be told in a far more granular way, through the experiences of Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock and Rod Moraga. Hitchcock is a resident of Lyons, a town of about 2,000 people 15 miles north of Boulder. She was on crutches as a result of hip surgery when the deluge hit. Along with her partner Chris and daughter Sylvia, she retreated to a friend’s house on relatively high ground as evacuation orders went out. They quickly became stranded there—on what Hitchcock describes as one of six “islands” surrounded by water. “All I had was my pajamas, crutches and an old coat with no zipper,” she says.

During the height of the flooding, Moraga was operations chief of a Boulder County incident management team tasked with rescuing people from places like Lyons. Working from a command center, he found himself fearing for the lives not only of those desperately in need of help, but also of the rescuers he was dispatching into nighttime torrents. “I didn’t want to be sending guys out there to die,” he says.

The multi-day disaster that stuck Colorado in the past week was the result of a very dangerous—and increasingly common—mix: a wild swing in the weather, tricky topography and people living in the intersection where the two collide. June through August of this year was the 10th warmest such period on record for Colorado. And the heat only intensified in early September. On the 5th and 6th, the Denver area tied the record for the hottest temperature ever recorded for that month in Colorado: 97º F (36º C). By Sept. 11th, however, clouds had rolled in, promising relief. “Thank God it’s finally raining here,” Hitchcock thought. But this was more than an ordinary storm front.

Courtesy Tom Yulsman

Flood water and snapped trees are pictured near a medical building in Boulder, Co., Sept. 13, 2013.

The turbulence began with two swirling weather systems over Nevada and Utah, sucking a monsoonal flow of moisture north into Colorado from the Gulf of Mexico. Winds from the east then pushed it all up against the mountains. And a frontal system from the north stalled over the state, pinning all that moisture in place. Torrential rains fell in much of the southwestern United States, but Colorado’s Front Range, from Fort Collins in the north, down to Colorado Springs in the south, took the brunt of it, with previously unheard of rainfall totals accumulating across a region spanning something on the order of 6,000 square miles (15,500 sq km).

Once it hit the ground, that water began running off into countless streams and gathering in numerous canyons that incise the foothills of the nation’s highest terrain. By this time of year, long after the mountain snows have melted out, these and countless other creeks flow much more gently than they do in spring. But starting on Tuesday the 10th that changed—catastrophically.

Two of the creeks—the North and South St. Vrain—merge in the funky town of Lyons at the foot of the mountains and by Wednesday the 12th, Hitchcock’s family and many others woke to neighbors banging on the door and telling them that they had to evacuate. Then emergency vehicles with sirens blaring rushed up and down the street. “We opened our front door and I could hear the river,” Hitchcock says. “Normally we cannot.”

On the way out of the house, Sylvia made sure to grab her schoolbooks and homework, thinking she’d be back in class the next day. The family retreated to the house of a friend, and that night, as the rains continued to pummel the town, they watched television reports of flooding in Boulder. Shortly after, the power went out. When they woke up the next morning, Hitchcock could see that her street down the hill was completely underwater. Both the North and South St. Vrain creeks had jumped their banks “and converged between my back yard and the next street over.” And the waters kept rising. “People who have lived here 50 years have never seen anything like it,” she says.

Meanwhile, to the south, Moraga was safe in a command center as he directed Boulder County’s Type 3 Incident Management Team. The rescuers he was helping to dispatch were were “working in the dark, literally and figuratively,” he says. Roads were swamped or washed out so quickly that rescuers had to change course repeatedly while en route to emergencies, in some cases traveling an extra 20 or 30 miles (42 to 38 km) to reach stranded residents just a few miles from where they started.

(PHOTOIntense Rains Cause Deadly Flash Floods in Northern Colorado)

Moraga was convinced that he would see fatalities not only among the stranded residents, but also among their rescuers. When one fireman checking on a house looked up to see a wall of water coming down on him, he climbed a tree to escape the torrent. Moraga and the rest of the staff at the incident command could hear his cries for help over the radio. “I do remember him saying that the tree was going to give way,” he says.

It did, and the fireman was washed away in the flood. The command staff was convinced he was dead, but a few hours later he was found alive and rescued.

Others were far less lucky. Two teenagers were washed away from their car in Boulder; a venerable resident of Jamestown, a small mountain town of 280 people west of the city, was crushed in a mudslide that swallowed his house. “It was like getting punched in the gut over, and over, and over again,” Moraga says.

Courtesy Tom Yulsman

A view of flooding on Oxford Road just west of Niwot, Co., Sept. 12, 2013.

By Thursday, Longmont a city about 10 miles (16 km) northeast of Boulder was inundated like Lyons was, effectively cut in two and partly submerged by floodwaters from Left Hand Creek and the St. Vrain River. In hard-hit Jamestown, homes were variously crushed, knocked off their foundations, and toppled into the flooding creek.

In Lyons, a lull in the weather and a retreat of the waters allowed Hitchcock to return to her home for a spell. In the front yard, she found three shovels that had floated in—a serendipitous sign that perhaps the worst was over. She, her family and some neighbors began digging out several feet of mud that had accumulated inside their homes. Music could be heard coming from a downtown coffee shop, and with the power still out, a makeshift community barbecue broke out—a quick, hot meal before the food spoiled for lack of refrigeration. The storm brought people together in other ways too. “Before the flood, a guy came up to visit this gal in town,” says Hitchcock. “It was only their second date.” When he couldn’t leave, “they took a sponge bath together in the open space. He joked that now they were on their fifth date.”

Then, however, the rains returned. By Saturday, officials told townspeople that they had to leave to allow relief efforts to focus on people further up in the mountains. Some chose to stay and may well be there even now. But Hitchcock and her family, as well as the family they stayed with on the island in the storm, decided to leave.

Throughout the affected cities and foothills, officials can’t devote themselves full-time to clean-up until people who are stranded can be rescued and those who are missing can be accounted for. The Colorado National Guard launched a military operation dubbed “Operation Centennial Raging Waters,” involving nearly 700 personnel and the biggest domestic helicopter airlift mission since Hurricane Katrina. As of Sept. 16, more than 2,400 people and hundreds of pets had been rescued by 21 Guard helicopters.

In Boulder County, 10 deputies have been working nearly around the clock, going door to door to follow up on people still unaccounted for (meaning that family and friends have not been able to get hold of them). According to Liz Donaghey, spokesperson for the Boulder Office of Emergency Management, those remaining on the unaccounted-for list are mostly in the mountain communities, like Gold Hill, Jamestown and Lyons. In Larimer County to the north, “we have hundreds of miles of roads that are damaged,” says John Schulz, the public information officer for the county sheriff. “This is unprecedented in the history of the county.”

Loss of lives and property are the most pressing concerns, but damage to the environment is a serious worry as well. On the plains to the northeast of Boulder, floodwaters spread out across a vast expanse dotted by oil and gas wells. Nearly 1,900 wells are located in areas that have flooded, according to the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. All have been “shut in,” meaning the flow of oil and gas has been stopped, COGA says. But concern is running high among activists and others that oil, gas, and fracking chemicals could be leaking into the water, creating significant risks.

Contamination could also come from raw sewage, since many treatment facilities—for both drinking water and sanitation—have been taken out by flooding. Many communities in and close to the mountains are on boil advisories.

Ultimately the unavoidable question will have to be answered: what role did human-caused climate change play in a rain event that the National Weather Service itself described as “biblical”? Tying a particular event to climate change is an extremely complex scientific enterprise, so an answer to that question may take awhile. But according to a draft National Climate Assessment Report issued in January, one thing is clear: “Over the last 50 years, much of the U.S. has seen an increase in prolonged stretches of excessively high temperatures, more heavy downpours, and in some regions more severe droughts.”

That’s a pretty fair description of what Colorado has experienced. Before too long, it could describe a lot of other American cities and towns as well.

—With reporting by Christi Turner and Michael Kodas

(Tom Yulsman is director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado and writes the ImaGeo blog at Discover.com; Christi Turner is a masters student at the University of Colorado and the graduate assistant for the CEJ, and Michael Kodas is associate director of the CEJ.)
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