This weekend, Coloradans who enjoy the outdoors will be looking for ways to parlay the last month of summer into fun. For those who love camping, fishing or just getting away, a trip to Larimer County’s Big Thompson Canyon might be the perfect getaway.
A drive along U.S. Highway 34 is enough to satisfy the appetite for pure high country beauty. Getting out and staying awhile is even better. But, 39 years ago this weekend, August 1, 1976, Colorado Day, campers hoping for the perfect end-of-summer holiday got just the opposite. Their weekend tryst morphed into something resembling a biblical plague.
Overnighters knew they might get some rain; it was, after all, August. But the rain they may have expected came in the form of an anomalous weather pattern that would both change and end lives.
Just after sunset on July 31st, the rain began. But the winds that usually blow weather cells east to the plains never came. The storm only grew. Within an hour, eight inches of rain had fallen. The Big Thompson River swelled. With nowhere to go, the water gushed down the canyon. Glen Comfort and Drake, tourist towns, got the first hit. When the water hit Drake, it was tsunami-like; a twenty-five foot wall of water flowing at an unimaginable 31,000 cubic feet per second. Cabins, stores, campsites, cars, trucks, livestock and timber---everything---simply disappeared with the flow.
With nearly 150 victims, 418 homes, 52 businesses, 438 vehicles as well as roads, bridges, power and phone lines gone in an instant, the then $35 million storm was counted as one of the worst natural disasters in the state’s history. Using 21st century data, that figure be many times as high, as would Colorado’s 1965 flood.
That flood hit Denver before moving south to Colorado Springs and Pueblo. In all, fifteen counties recorded damages today estimated at $4 billion. And everywhere along its path, it caused havoc and misery.
The Denver Post reported “a string of funnels materialized over the foothills” as prelude to an unprecedented deluge. An estimated 14 inches of rain covered the city and surrounding area in just three hours. Benign bodies of water, including the South Platte and all its tributaries, turned malevolent, gushing like uncontrollable firehoses. Jim Hier, a then 26-year-old well digger, told the Post years later, “South of Larkspur, I looked up at the valley where we had been and the whole valley was a lake.”
All along the river, property disappeared. Homes vanished. Century-old trees were roots-up in the wash, along with cars, trucks, barns, bridge standards, livestock and propane tanks that posed their own unique threat. The final tally, in Denver alone, included 16 bridges. The city rebuilt and today remnants of the flood have disappeared. Since then, any plans that reflect development along the South Platte are scrutinized, carefully, thoroughly.
One thing that should mitigate the South Platte from again unleashing its 1965 fury is the Chatfield Dam, built in the aftermath. Any deluge from the river, theoretically, will be contained by the dam before hitting the city or any development that has risen up in its shadows over the last half century.
But neither the flood nor its damage stopped at city’s edge. Nature seemed to be on a mission. The flooding continued, cutting a swath south through El Paso County and on into Pueblo.
“I remember the water nearly as high as the Belmont Bridge,” said Pueblo native Wick Hendrix, a then 15-year-old sophomore to be. Hendrix, like many others, “thousands,” according to a story in the Pueblo Chieftain, stood a safe distance away as the Fountain Creek, which normally resembles a system of crossable trickles, steadily grew in size and strength. An estimated sixteen inches of rain in three days will do that. The creek disappeared, replaced by an avalanche of water that crested at more than twenty feet. Looking at the Fountain today, that height might be unimaginable.
For three days in June, 1965, nature called the shots up and down the Front Range. It’s estimated that more than 2,500 homes were destroyed by the rains and flooding, more than a quarter of a million acres of farmland was covered with flood water and that 21 deaths occurred, including that of a 22-year-old James Osnowitz.
Osnowitz had graduated only weeks before from then Southern Colorado State College and had taken his first reporting job. “He made a mistake,” said the now retired CSU-Pueblo mass communications professor and Osnowitz mentor, Rick Pavlik. As he was trying to piece together a flood story, “he followed a semi across a bridge and it collapsed.” His body was recovered days later.
In 1965, emergency planning---especially for hundred-year floods--- was, by today’s standards, dark-age science. That is no longer the case. Today, cities dedicate significant resources to emergency services. Planning is paramount.
“We can kind of control the Arkansas (river),” says Chief Mark Mears, who oversees the Pueblo County Sheriff’s Emergency Services Department. The city has two rivers, so control, or even partial control of the Arkansas, is vital. It learned that lesson nearly a hundred years earlier.
In 1921 the Arkansas flooded, resulting in an estimated death toll once set as high as 1,500 lives. (A revised figure sits closer to 300-400.) Most of the city’s downtown was destroyed. The disaster, often referred to as “The Great Flood,” resulted in more than $20-million in damages, a figure that would be many times that in today’s dollars. An area of 300 square miles was impacted by the overflow. As a result, the Army Corps of Engineers built levies and actually rerouted the river.
Mears says no municipality can ever be completely prepared for a worst case scenario, but “we’re connected to the National Weather Service, we get alerts, so we start monitoring what’s going on” and what it could lead to. “The biggest thing for us to make sure we’re getting evacuation notices out to the public downstream.” Mears also meets regularly with fellow emergency planners, some of whom have shared first-hand experience with the state’s most recent natural disaster, 2013’s northern Colorado floods.
In terms of sheer size and cost, “the 2013 flooding was the biggest disaster we’ve had in our history,” said Molly Urbina, Executive Director of Colorado Resiliency and Recovery, an agency established immediately after the 2013 floods. The disaster affected 17 counties, including two of the most populous, Boulder and Larimer counties.
Again, it was an anomalous weather pattern that lead to the disaster. On September 9, 2013, a slow moving cold front stalled over the region when it encountered warm monsoon air. The result was deluge, including nine inches of rain across Boulder County, alone. Before it ended, eight lives were lost and two persons were listed as missing.
“It was a $4 billion impact on the state,” said Urbina. The figure comes from the 19,000 homes that were damaged, including more than 1,500 that were totally destroyed. The storm also washed out or destroyed 30 bridges and seriously damaged another 20. Farmland, crop and livestock loses also added to the damage figure. The entire town of Lyons was left completely isolated by damaged or destroyed infrastructure.
So far, the state, using a variety of sources, has been able to invest $1.6 billion in the recovery. “We will have to continue to look for funding resources and be smart as we try and build back,” she said.
Urbina credits Governor John Hickenlooper with both the will and imagination in dealing with this disaster. But, “local communities are also doing a great job as they try and recover.”
The disaster caught everyone by surprise, said Urbina. But, despite the devastation to lives and property, lessons, as is the case in the aftermath of all natural disasters, were learned. The Governor ordered a complete review of the state’s response to the storm. “It has a lot of information on the things we did the first year (after the flooding),” said Urbina. “It is a guiding principle and good roadmap for local communities. We really want to empower them, make sure they have the tools they need.”
Unfortunately, no report can anticipate how forces of nature will come together to create havoc someday in the future. But, planning, says Urbina, is preparation.