September 18, 2013

Yes, that’s what Russ Schumaker, a Colorado State University researcher, is calling this storm of biblical proportions. Here is what happened: most of Colorado has been in a prolonged multi-year drought. The Colorado summer monsoons usually end by August. Early September was hotter than usual–a sweltering 97̊. But then monsoon rains blew east into the Front Range. The high pressure system that had brought the heat, shifted northeast, allowing the low pressure system to move in just as the rain arrived. The collision produced a giant stalled wet weather system, the energy from the cold front and the humidity from the monsoon created that rarity–the Perfect Storm.

Another reason for labeling it a thousand-year-storm is that a 150-mile-wide stretch of the Front Range [the Colorado foothills that divide the high country of the Rockies from the Great Plains to the east] producing this much torrential rain (most in 48 hours) statistically wouldn’t happen again in a thousand years.

Let me give you a bird’s-eye view of what it was like to experience it. We were lucky: perched at 9700 feet in elevation near the top of Conifer Mountain, we weren’t likely to be troubled by rising floodwaters.

The rain began last Tuesday–and it just kept raining, eventually totaling over six inches at our house, but that was nothing compared to how much fell elsewhere. A number of areas were flooded by ten to fifteen inches of rain in six days (as much as their normal yearly total). Boulder, at last count, received 18.55 inches (most of it in 48 hours)! Almost every river and creek from Pueblo to the Wyoming border flooded and creeks swelled to river-size: Fountain Creek, Rock Creek, South Platte and North Platte rivers, Bear Creek, Coal Creek, Boulder Creek, St. Vrain River, Big Thompson River, and Pouder River–they all went into demolition mode.

In Lyons, water rose in the black of night, around 2 a.m. sirens blared, people pounded on doors, as citizens were warned to flee the rampaging St. Vrain. High up in the mountains, at 2:27 a.m., in Jamestown, townspeople awoke as water and boulders roared down a usually mild-mannered creek. Both towns were soon all but cut off from the world. Same for the resort community of Estes Park. Not since the terrible Big Thompson flood of 1976 when 144 people had perished by a tidal wave of water thundering through the canyon had anyone seen the like. It didn’t take much time before the torrent washed out roads and bridges along a seventeen-mile stretch, scraping off everything on the riverbed down to bare rock. Since Estes Park was cut off from the world, with no cell coverage, the only way out was to escape over the 12,000 foot high Trail Ridge Road down into the Frazer Valley, and then find a crossing into Wyoming. Both Loveland and Longmont were cut in two by raging streams.

The City of Boulder got far more than its share of the cataclysm. Residents were both mesmerized and terrorized by epic rainfall and engorged creeks that tore away roads and ripped homes off their foundations. According to the Denver Post, “Boulder Creek turned into a roiling, coffee-colored beast, smelling of sewage, carrying tree branches and swamping parks.”

Bear Creek in Evergreen was flowing at such a pace that people down below in Bear Creek Canyon feared for their lives should the dam give way below Evergreen Lake, which would have also inundated the City of Evergreen. All traffic through the town ceased.

Boulder Creek usually flows at a rate somewhere between 100 and 300 cubic feet per second; at its flood peak it was moving at a mind-boggling 4,500 cubic feet per second! The City of Boulder, including the University of Colorado, spreads out over 25 square miles. By Friday, it was awash in 4.5 billion gallons of water. At one point, 280,800 pounds [140 tons] of water a second were roaring through, at a velocity equal to a class IV rapid. To get that force in perspective, in flash floods, it only takes two feet of water to wash away a car; car engines can flood when the water is half way up its tires, much less than that if the car is moving, because the water then surges up. Just six inches of flood-strength water can knock a full-grown man off his feet.

The news has been full of stories of thousands of people stranded, trailer-houses floating away with pets in them, livestock caught in rising waters; because of contaminated water, people being unable to drink water, use their toilets, take baths, etc.; marooned children in youth camps have had to be either bussed out of Estes Park over the Divide or helicoptered out of Jamestown. Thousands of people have been rescued by helicopters since hundreds of roads are now closed, washed away, or bridges washed out.

The Big Thompson hits flood-stage at six feet; it now reached 10.55 feet, higher than the 9.3 feet in 1976.

No one yet knows how many people have died. So many other towns and cities remain flooded, it is going to take a very long time for Colorado to recover!

But, in times like these, the human spirit shows its resilience, and people realize that things are but things; as long as they still have each other, health, sweet life, and God, everything else is expendable.

SOURCES: The Denver Post, Sept. 13, 14, 15, 16, 2013