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Rain began to fall Sept. 11 in Larimer County at a rate like no other in recent memory, triggering devastating flooding, that quickly erased homes, roads and lives as the Cache la Poudre and Big Thompson rivers gathered the runoff of rainfall measured in depths more familiar in snow storms and roared east.
Statewide, floodwater swamped at least 1,910 square miles of land in 17 counties. At least 1,882 homes were destroyed and 16,101 more damaged. Some 765 commercial structures were damaged and at least 203 destroyed. Seven people are confirmed dead. More than 200-lane miles of road was scoured away by rivers flowing in places 10,000-times faster than their normal autumn rates. At least 50 bridges are damaged, perhaps beyond repair.
The damage in Larimer County is devastating – miles of U.S. 34 between Loveland and Estes Park washed away, and homes along the river went with it. More than 8,000 homes were in the flood zone, more than 1,212 people required evacuation by land or air, thousands more evacuated on their own. Two people – two women from Cedar Cove – are presumed dead, swept away with their homes.
In theory, the flood was a once-in-a-lifetime event. But it takes on additional weight because it follows, by just 15 months, the once-in-a-lifetime High Park Fire that consumed more than 87,000 acres and burned at least 259 homes.
The flooding, Larimer County sheriff’s spokesman John Schulz said, is “the most catastrophic event in Larimer County history.”
Suzanne Bassinger, once the county’s fire-recovery manager and now heading up flood recovery, estimated the scale of damage at “10 to 100 times larger than the fire.”
“Biblical,” said Hal Braden, 71, a hardy resident of the hard-hit Buckhorn Canyon in the hills west of Fort Collins. “We’ve had the fire and now the flood. When comes the pestilence?”
Just as the fires affected some people more than others, the flood spared some, barely touched the lives of others, and caused unimaginable loss, pain and suffering to those who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Shane Cooper, who lives with his extended family in lower Buckhorn Canyon, was able to get the family cars to high ground before the deluge came. When the culvert washed out near their property, causing a 70-foot-long gash in the road, Cooper says, “we got a break. The water was suddenly diverted away from our place. We have only minimal damage to structures.”
There is no doubt that the fires — High Park last year and the Crystal Mountain Fire in 2011 — increased the intensity of the flood damage. Nearly a week of rain sent water rushing through fire-charred areas carrying blackened earth, twigs, tree branches and piles of anonymous debris onto roadways and into streambeds to collect wherever it came into contact with a structure. Then the water moved on to wreak havoc in the towns and on the Eastern Plains.
It didn’t happen quickly, but as the high water from the Cache la Poudre River and the flooding waters from the Saint Vrain and Big Thompson rivers converged with South Platte River they inundated fields, weakened bridges and flooded houses and businesses in every town from Greeley to the Nebraska border.
Rist Canyon Volunteer Fire Department Chief Bob Gann got a first-hand look from the air at the Upper and Middle Buckhorn Canyon on Sept. 19. He was astounded at the extent of damage so severe that portions of the road were completely gone.
“There is no evidence that there was ever a road in some places,” he said. “I thought for a moment maybe we weren’t in the right place.”
On Sept. 9, clouds threatened and the weather report indicated a storm on the way in Northern Colorado, but it wasn’t until Wednesday, Sept. 11 that the downpour began in earnest. “The first 7 inches were welcome following a six-week dry spell,” said Rex Ewing of Buckhorn Canyon. “But after that, with more rain on the way, it became apparent the mountains were in trouble. It hit home for my wife, LaVonne and me when we walked down to Fish Creek on Thursday morning to find that our little creek had become a raging torrent, 30-feet wide.”
Sheriff’s spokesman Schulz said the first indication of trouble was a National Weather Service flood advisory issued at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 11. The department immediately dispatched emergency crews to check on the Poudre River and Rist Canyon, which flooded regularly during the summer months. “And it went downhill from there.”
The Colorado Department of Transportation closed Colorado 14 in Poudre Canyon from Ted’s Place to Rustic for the night. By the end of the night, several other roads were closed, the roadway underlying part of Stove Prairie Road had washed out, East Mulberry frontage road had become impassable and fallen rocks caused hazardous conditions on Colorado 14.
By 1 a.m. on Sept. 12, Larimer County Emergency Manager Erik Nilsson had decided that evacuations would be necessary. U.S. 34 was closed from the Dam Store to Estes Park and Colorado 7 from Lyons to Estes Park was closed as well, effectively isolating that mountain town. The National Guard was summoned to extricate a vehicle in the Big Elk area near CR 47 and U.S. 36. Flash-flood warnings extended for hour after hour, and more and more roads were closed, as officials in Estes Park explained that they “didn’t expect any problems,” with the water that would be released from the Olympus Dam that holds back Lake Estes. Nevertheless, they asked residents in the area to be prepared to evacuate.
The eastbound lane of U.S. 34 in Big Thompson Canyon collapsed at mile marker 74.5, and the west side of the road developed a big crack. Preparations were made to evacuate people to shelters in Loveland, Lyons and Estes Park. Later, all of Lyons was evacuated. Curious onlookers were warned to stay off all bridges. Telephone service in Estes Park was gone. An evacuation center opened at Timberline Church in Fort Collins. Officials explained that numerous roads had been washed out throughout the county and conditions were expected to deteriorate. Residents of all low lying areas were told to evacuate or prepare to shelter in place.
Trouble starts to mount
By the afternoon of Sept. 12, Chief Gann was helping escort vehicles up and down Rist Canyon as heavy runoff lashed at both sides of the road.
Drainage repairs to Rist Canyon Road following the High Park Fire helped mitigate damage. “The new concrete culverts under the road did great,” Gann said. “They were a lifesaver, and damage to the road would have been much worse without them. (Larimer County) Road and Bridge was working their butts off keeping the road open, and did a really good job fixing things as quickly as they could while still accommodating the limited local traffic.”
Into the evening of Sept. 12, roaring Buckhorn Creek began washing away large sections of Buckhorn Road, isolating Buckhorn residents. Stove Prairie Road took a major pounding from High Park burn scar runoff, and sections of that road wash away as well.
At 1 a.m. Sept. 13, the Sheriff’s Department notified Poudre School District that the Poudre River had left its banks near the Cache La Poudre schools in LaPorte. School district crews arrived at the schools about 2 a.m. and began sandbagging near the two buildings and cleaning up water that had seeped into the southwest corner of the elementary school. JAX Farm and Ranch opened early and provided more sandbags while staff from around the district arrived to help transport and distribute them.
By daybreak, law enforcement had asked Larimer County residents to stay off all roads except for essential travel. North-south thoroughfares crossing the Big Thompson River were closed — including Interstate 25. Colorado State University, Poudre School District and all city and county offices closed for the day.
Rocky Mountain National Park closed, and Poudre students trapped at the YMCA Camp in Estes Park were bused home the long way, over Trail Ridge Road. Rescues were underway on CR 47 off U.S. 36. The sheriff requested additional air resources. For the time being only people with medical issues were evacuated.
Heavy rains were predicted for the night.
Poudre at peak
The Poudre River crested the morning of Sept. 14. A Colorado Parks and Wildlife hydrologist estimated that the Cache la Poudre River’s peak flow early the morning of Sept. 13 was about 11,000 cubic feet per second, about half the all-time record of 21,000 CFS recorded in the 1880s.
Aquatic research scientist Eric Richer said that flood waters took out water measurement gauges at the mouth of the Poudre before a high-water mark could be recorded. From his preliminary data, Richer estimates the recent flood at about a once in every 65-year event.
Data from the Colorado Division of Water Resources gauges at the mouth of the Poudre Canyon show the gauge failing at about 11 p.m. on Sept. 12, near the 6,000 CFS mark. Measurements were restored late the next night, with the river running in the 6,000 CFS range. The gauge is located 1/2 mile downstream from the headgate of Poudre Valley Canal and about 1.2 miles upstream from Lewistone Creek.
U.S. Geological Survey water flow measurement gauges in Fort Collins near East Lincoln and North College registered the Cache la Poudre’s peak water level at 11-feet high and at about 9,000 CFS late Sept. 13 into Sept. 14.
Other high-water events include a 1903 flood that reached 12,000 CFS and the recent 1997 flood, where the river flowed at about 3,000 CFS. Normal river flow for September, based on about 100 years of observation, is between 100 and 300 CFS. A cubic foot of water equals about 7.5 gallons.
Missing, presumed dead
Two women from the Cedar Cove neighborhood of Big Thompson Canyon were reported missing and presumed dead: Patty Goodwine, 60, and Evelyn Starner, 79. A team was established to track down missing and unaccounted for people. Two large Chinook helicopters and seven smaller ones were pressed into use and 475 people plus just as many pets were evacuated. The National Weather Service issues a flash flood warning for the Red Feather Lakes area.
By Sept. 15, two 80-person FEMA search and rescue teams were in Larimer County and ready to begin going door-to-door looking for survivors in flood-stranded locations. Telephone service had been restored to Estes Park — at least for people making in-town calls. More flash flood warnings went out to Red Feather Lakes, Pingree and Rustic. The National Guard had 16 helicopters ready to make rescues, but rain and low clouds prevented them from flying. There were 482 people unaccounted for, meaning they had not checked in with friends, family or authorities. Travel on Colorado 7 outside Estes Park was restored and a disaster center opened in Loveland.
Boxelder performs well
The Boxelder Stormwater Authority, which manages stormwater in the 260-square-mile Boxelder Creek Watershed, which stretches from southern Wyoming to southeast Fort Collins and Timnath, tested the diversion of Coal Creek north of Wellington into the inlet canal at Clark Reservoir east of I-25 during the storm.
“The diversion behaved just the way it was supposed to”, authority manager Stan Myers said after checking with North Poudre Irrigation Company operations manager Steve Smith. “If the diversion had failed, it could have resulted in floodwaters pouring over the spillway.”
On Sept. 16, the flood-related damage began to reveal itself in preliminary numbers released by the state and Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith: 1,500 houses lost and 4,500 damaged along with 200 businesses. Flood waters had raged across 1,120 square miles and 17 counties. Damage appeared minimal in Rist and Poudre Canyons, but the story was different in Big Thompson Canyon, the North Fork of the Big Thompson River, North St. Vrain Canyon and the Buckhorn Canyon, where roads and houses had disappeared. Three earthen dams near Pinewood Springs failed but there appeared to be little impact from that event.
Waters continued to recede on Sept. 17, and power was restored to Estes Park. Rist Canyon Road to Stove Prairie reopened. On Sept. 18, 114 people were rescued from Storm Mountain, Glen Haven, The Retreat, Fish Creek, Idlewild, Waltonia and Pinewood Springs. By this time most of the people who wanted to be rescued had been evacuated. No one was forced to go, but Smith flew to talk to holdouts making it clear those who stayed behind could not count on government supplies of food and fuel. During the night Trail Ridge Road was closed because of snow and freezing temperatures, but opened the following morning.
On Sept. 19, 15 helicopters were still available for rescue, damage assessment and recovery planning. A total of 1,183 people had been rescued from stranded communities, but more than 100 people had decided to remain on Storm Mountain and 73 stayed in Pinewood Springs. The unaccounted for number dropped to 139, but a 46-year-old man whose home in Drake washed away, pushed the toll of those presumed dead to three. He was later found alive and safe.
As the rain slowed and flood waters began to recede, hardware stores in LaPorte and Wellington were managing to fill most requests. Wellington Ace Hardware owner Doug Andersen said that while Wellington dodged the brunt of the storm, people from LaPorte and north of the Cache la Poudre River had been calling and visiting the store looking for pumps to buy or rent to dry out their basements. Ace was out on Sept. 20, but received a delivery late on Sept. 22.
Delivery of animal feed to Ace was slowed because floodwaters in Sterling kept workers from reaching a warehouse. Likewise, there is a shortage of wood shavings for animal bedding because the processing plant in Fort Lupton has been shut down.
“When people can get back to their homes, we expect a run on everything related to repairs, security and recovery,” Andersen said. “I expect demand to continue for some time as demand exceeds supplies in stores south of us.”
In anticipation of a harsh winter, Ace is developing a kit people can throw in the trunk of their car for emergency needs. They sell freeze-dried food along with the kit. “Between the fires of last summer and the rain this year, I believe winter emergencies could become a huge problem for people who are not prepared. Then again,” Andersen said, “Who could have possibly been prepared for what happened over the past week?”
Some deliveries to LaPorte Hardware were delayed because road closures forced suppliers to take long routes to town. But Cathy Thompson said the supply of pumps was replenished before stock ran out, and the store has a large supply of plumbing materials and plenty of products to deal with mold and odor in flooded crawl spaces.
Red Feather Lakes Library Director Creed Kidd said his community has been fortunate. Some buildings had water in crawl spaces and basements, and leaking roofs, but overall, damage has been minor. Many residents have been dealing with soggy and flooded yards, but a couple of days of sun is helping to remedy those situations, he said.
Kidd says it has been quite interesting at times, getting in and out of the library, and power outages have been common, some lasting as long as six hours, but things had returned to normal by Sept. 17. Road closures made travel time consuming at times.
“Our problems are nothing like what people in other mountain communities are facing,” Kidd said.
Parents of students at Cache La Poudre Elementary School have high praise for principal Roxann Hall and the job she and her staff have done to clean and repair damage to the school in record time. Forced to repurpose several spaces because of flooded classrooms, Hall and the CLPE teachers and staff got the new rooms set up in half a day. The children returned to school on Sept. 17 and gathered in the gym for songs, announcements and a community time. Work continues on the school grounds but a new parking lot and playground are ready for use. Clean-up and restoration continues and already ordering of needed replacement items has begun.
Stove Prairie School opened on Sept. 17 and had a wonderful day according to Mountain Schools principal Matt Marietta. However, unstable roads forced the school to close Sept. 18, but Rist Canyon re-opened to traffic and the school was open Sept. 19 and 20.
Wellington has had a respite from train horns as destroyed railroad track along BNSF Railway’s main line through Boulder and Loveland has forced the railroad to reroute trains through Weld County. No estimate has been given for the line reopening.
The hardy, self-sufficient bunch in Buckhorn Canyon have lost no time in organizing themselves into on-the-spot repair crews. Many of them have the heavy equipment and skills needed to make at least temporary road repairs. These days they speak of themselves as part of “Island One, Two or Three” according to their various locations along the flood-segmented Buckhorn Road. They have built a zipline from steel cable and a pulley to ferry supplies across the creek and are working to repair culverts where they can. By Sept. 19, Hal Braden reported that after a day of hard work that involved making repairs to Wildsong Road and then out to the Buckhorn Road, he could finally travel in and out of his home.
Deb Cheuvront, who describes her husband John Benshoof as “a well-organized and equipped mountain man,” said they were high and dry at their home 4.2 miles off Buckhorn Road in Stringtown Gulch. Benshoof owns a John Deere tractor with a bucket and backhoe plus a Bobcat and an ATV, all useful for the work he’s been doing these days.