Planet Waves

Flooding of the Front Range: A Chronology

Rain began soaking Colorado's Front Range area on Monday, Sept. 9 and didn't let up. The Front Range is a range of the Southern Rockies that extends from Wyoming into Colorado. "Front Range" is also how Coloradans describe the urban corridor in the foothills just to the east of the mountains, an area that includes both Denver and Boulder and is the most densely populated part of the state.

Some minor flooding was first reported on Wednesday, Sept. 11, near Cascade. The Manitou River was high, as were many creeks in an area called the Waldo Canyon Fire Scar. The Manitou Springs emergency siren sounded twice on the morning of Sept. 11, and the El Paso County Sheriff's Office was making warning calls to Manitou Springs businesses and residents, telling them to be prepared. "Monsoon moisture" was flooding into Colorado from the south. By 5 pm on Wednesday, many flood watches had turned to warnings along the Front Range.

The first reported death was late Wednesday night in Jamestown. Another body was recovered early Thursday morning in Colorado Springs, and a third in Boulder County later that day.

Early on Thursday, Sept. 12, the reports of creeks and rivers overflowing their banks began to flood in, so to speak, as fast and hard as the rain itself. Early reports highlighted Boulder County as the main area of concern. Boulder officials asked for and received approval for National Guard helicopters to do search and rescue at daybreak on Sept. 12. At about 7 am, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper verbally declared a disaster emergency in Boulder and Larimer counties.

A formal written declaration the next day added Adams, Arapahoe, Broomfield, Denver, El Paso, Fremont, Jefferson, Logan, Morgan, Pueblo, Washington and Weld.

In short, much of the Front Range area was a total mess by Sept. 13. Evacuation orders and reports of breached dams and flooded roadways were region-wide. People in mountain towns with limited road access were being told to shelter in place, while others were being directed to higher ground.

Also on Sept. 12, President Obama issued an emergency declaration for Boulder, El Paso and Larimer counties.

Boulder got just over nine inches of rain between 6 pm on Sept. 11 and 6 pm on Sept. 12, a record far and above any other in 110 years of record keeping. Flash floods were reported in Jamestown at 1:02 am ("multiple homes collapsed and destroyed"), in downtown Boulder at 1:24 am ("significant flooding at the Justice Center"), and again at 2:28 am and 4 am. ("a 20-foot wall of water moved down Left Hand Canyon. A firefighter was trapped in a tree but has been rescued.")

Larimer County was warning residents to get to higher ground early on Sept. 12. The Meadow Lake Dam had given way as of 2:36 am that morning, threatening the Big Elk Meadows area. Lake Estes in Estes Park was reported to be "at full capacity" and residents of Big Thompson Canyon were warned to be ready for water releases from the Olympus Dam.

As Thursday turned into Friday, with dramatic rescue stories pouring in from all over and three fatalities recorded, the rain was still not letting up. Road closures were everywhere through the area's canyons. Terms like "500-year flood," "Biblical," and "epic" were being liberally employed.

As of Friday, nearly 200 people were still unaccounted for.

Walls of debris and feet of dirty water devastated some towns -- Estes Park was hit hard, as were Lyons, Jamestown, Pinewood Springs, Loveland, Evans -- in all, over a dozen cities were heavily impacted by flash flood.

On into Saturday the rain continued, complete with evacuation orders, rescue operations in full swing, and growing concerns about sewage-contaminated flood waters. Saturday was the day President Obama issued the official FEMA disaster declaration, but Saturday was not the end of Colorado's struggle.

After a brief break, rain began again on Sunday, causing still more warnings and evacuations as rescue efforts continued. As some people were being told they could go home (or at least go and see if they still had one) still others were being told to get out -- in Weld County as of 10:26 am Sunday, Lyons as of 5:45 am Sunday, Sterling at 4:30 am Monday, and Crook, which was being threatened by high water in Harmony Ditch, as of 2:30 am on Tuesday.

The geography of the area, laced with creeks and steep ravines, has contributed greatly to making this such a twisting tale. Among many interesting stories that are continuing to emerge, 15 National Guard rescuers were trapped themselves in Lyons on Sunday.

The numbers thus far, as of Wednesday, Sept. 18, include six confirmed dead (including two "teens in love" swept away near Boulder), 18,000 homes damaged, and 6,400 people applying for FEMA aid thus far. The displaced face a tight, expensive rental market as they look down a long, arduous road to recovery. Nebraska is next in line for this particular gush of water; meanwhile, some weather reports cited ominously darkening skies around the Front Range Wednesday evening.

In other flood news, thousands of tourists were trapped in Acapulco, Mexico, early this week by a flood that killed 55 as tropical storms Ingrid and Manuel converged.

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