Floods that struck Colorado in mid-September, killing at least seven people and impacting 17 counties, have been called “biblical,” and more specifically — but no less ominously — hundred-year storms or even thousand-year storms.
From Sept. 9–16, parts of Boulder County saw as much as 18 inches of rain fall over one week, with 9 inches coming Sept. 12, nearly half of the annual average. Boulder County saw most of the rain, with National Weather Service maps showing nearly one-third of the county’s receiving more than 12 inches of rain during that week. This is in the middle of a long-term drought throughout eastern Colorado.
Landslides have followed, aided by the erosion caused by major forest fires in Larimer and El Paso counties, plus the natural geology common to Colorado. Canyons act like funnels, so water that falls in one place quickly winds up elsewhere, sometimes miles away.
More than 12,000 people were evacuated from their homes throughout the state, thousands of which are now uninhabitable, and tens of thousands are damaged.
“Friday night it just didn’t stop,” said Boulder County Commissioner Elise Jones, who is in her first term and experiencing her first disaster. “You hear a rushing creek and realize it’s in the street right near your house.”
The flooding has been sobering.
“You don’t really believe forecasts, you don’t have a sense of the power of that much water until you witness it,” she said.
“We’ve lost four lives in Boulder County, that could have been much worse, but we saw tens of millions of dollars of damage done to public infrastructure. I’m not sure when we’ll be back to normal, or what that new normal will be.”
The county’s incident command team ran round-the-clock helicopter rescue operations for five days, standing down on Sept. 18.
“Our missing persons list started in the hundreds, and now we’re down to four,” she said on that date.
Jones said more than 100 miles of roads in the unincorporated parts of the county have been damaged beyond useful condition and 35 bridges are unsafe. The damage within the city of Boulder was limited to the areas close to a few drainage systems.
“The floods knocked out virtually every road, some had multiple washouts,” she said. “We’re struggling to regain basic access to the mountains, and only one (major) east-west road is open.”
Several towns lost water supply and treatment, some towns are without power and the county is asking residents not to return until utilities can be restored.
“The silver lining is that we’ve seen the best of people in a time of crisis,” Jones said. “People are resilient and willing to work together on this and they’re looking to bounce back. It’s equal parts heartbreaking and heartwarming.”
Boulder County has opened a one-stop relief center, with temporary housing services, building permit clerks, a lost pet registry and FEMA assistance services.
Recovery Manager Suzanne Bassinger said the flooding in Larimer County would have a big impact on the assessed value of property, since more than 1,500 homes and 200 businesses were destroyed. More than 4,500 homes were damaged.
The county already lost 259 homes in the High Park Fire in June 2012, a disaster from which it was still recovering when the floods hit. That experience, though, has set the groundwork for the flood recovery.
“We have relationships in place with many of the faith-based and nonprofit organizations that have helped with fire recovery,” Bassinger said. “We’ll have people connected with those resources in weeks instead of months, which is important because the county won’t have the funding to address private losses.
“We’ve never handled anything of this size before,” she said. “That, on top of our continuing effort to recover from the fire, has made this really difficult because we’re still trying to grasp the magnitude of it all. This recovery will be going on for a long time. Infrastructure repairs will take months, if not years.”
The Larimer County Sheriff’s Office has been leading the response effort, which had rescued 1,183 people as of Sept. 19, drawing the 643 unaccounted-for person list down to 139. Three are missing and presumed dead.
“It’s the worst natural disaster to hit Larimer County,” said sheriff’s spokeswoman Jennifer Hillmann.
Almost 200 residents remained in their homes despite advice to evacuate, and Sheriff Justin Smith warned them that because roads to those areas are almost nonexistent, once National Guard helicopters leave, there will be few aerial resources to help them.
“Those people are used to living in isolated areas and having little contact with people,” Hillmann said. “But there will be little we can do for them if they choose to shelter in place.”
In El Paso County, the burn scars of the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires exacerbated the effect of the rain, which fell in once-forested land but wound up damaging residential areas.
“The hydrology of the ground changes,” El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark said. “The ground becomes a lot like cement. The water rushes right over it. Mud clogs up culverts, storm drains. The water goes where it can find a path, and that’s not where we want it to go.”
Clark, who is also NACo’s second vice president, said the key to preventing damage like this, Clark said, is helping prevent forest fires, and she champions the Healthy Forests Initiative, which would remove fuel from potential fires.
“If a house survives a forest fire, it then becomes very vulnerable to flooding,” she said. “Reducing fuels in watershed areas will prevent forest fires in the first place.”
Having been through two major fires and a flood in fewer than 18 months has made El Paso County emergency-weary, but decidedly more adept at handing disasters.
“Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it makes us better in our responses,” Clark said. “We’ve gotten better at providing organizational support, and moral support, as our citizens endure these things.”
On top of the obvious damage to lives and property, tying to get back to a routine has been difficult in Boulder County, Jones said, because the flooding changed the nature of the region’s character. It’s a haven for endurance athletes, with world-class triathletes and distance runners flocking to train at high altitude and the multitude of trails.
“It seems like there’s no trail that hasn’t been eroded away,” she said. “The popular roads for bicyclists are in pieces. It seems trivial but this quality of life makes Boulder what it is.”