1,000 Year Flood hits Front Range

Barbara Lawlor1,000 Year Flood hits Front Range
Peak to Peak

On Sunday, Sept. 8, it began to rain. The Neder-Nederland ran under portentous skies, but it wasn’t until later in the evening that the moisture quickened and let go. For the past few days, intermittent showers had led to umbrellas, wellingtons, raincoats, but no one was complaining. After a hot, dry spell, residents actually breathed a sigh of relief; the ubiquitous fear of forest fire was drenched for a while, and, after all, “we needed the moisture.”
1,000 Year Flood hits Front RangeSunday’s rain was more insistent. The mountains were getting a good soaking. The drops landed on the meadows, the ridges, the gullies and the shoulders of county roads for the next three days.
The earth drank its fill and then, sated, began to refuse it. People were annoyed. They wanted to garden, play tennis and feel warm and dry, but still, no one was really complaining.
People went to bed Wednesday night under dark skies, clouds1,000 Year Flood hits Front Range hanging halfway down the hills that surrounded the small towns and that led to gullies, creeks and roads. The spongy ground spurted excess water, formed pools and ponds, or just started running downhill, joining, growing bigger and stronger under the rivulets, which became gully washers, ditch diggers and excavators, eating up the road shoulders, sliding under asphalt and creating caverns that swallowed access roads and shoved bridges and dams out of its way. The 1,000-year flood of 2013 was under way.
Fire departments, police and emergency services were aware of a flash flood threat and were on alert. The Fourmile burn area, low-lying areas at the mouth of Boulder Canyon, Jamestown and Lyons were considered in danger of flooding. No one had any idea of how bad it would get.
About 10 p.m. Boulder County Dispatch began getting calls that Left Hand Creek had washed the road out and it was impassable. Later a call for help came from a firefighter stranded on a tree in the creek. Buildings in Jamestown were crumbling, undermined by the force of the disgorging swell of water. Everyone was called to help those who were affected, but it was too late for Jamestown and Lyons, which had no way out, and there was no way in to be rescued.
By Thursday morning, Sept. 12, the Boulder Office of Emergency Management announced that an emergency1,000 Year Flood hits Front Range status for the county. All schools were canceled as more and more roads were shut down. People were asked to stay home as emergency workers fought to get to stranded people, some of them trapped in cars as they were swept down the raging wall of water.
Boulder Creek took out parts of Boulder Canyon and swelled as it hit the west part of Boulder, making travel across the city roads impossible. Coal Creek Canyon below Ranch Elsie lost whole chunks of the road and washed away the creek banks that held the infrastructure of bridges and driveways, leaving residents isolated.
As the ground dropped into the creek, natural gas lines were left suspended in air and vulnerable. One Coal Creek Canyon woman and her children were rescued by a search and rescue team who picked them up in a boat and brought them to safety.
On Thursday, she waited to see if her husband had made it out after returning to the house. They had spent the night in Eldorado Lodge at the top of Coal Creek Canyon.
Large holes sank into the asphalt, hard to see at night and working to slowly disintegrate the rest of the road. Colorado Department of Transportation workers put up orange cones and asked people to not go through. The highway buckled in places, compromised by the constant bombardment of frothing creek water.
Denver metropolitan television stations began broadcasting videos of the devastation that other towns, north and east of us were experiencing. At least four people had died at this point, teenagers swept away in their car. The owner of Jamestown Mercantile died in the flood and an injured woman was carried downstream inside of her home.
A group of 85 fifth graders and 14 adult chaperones from Fireside Elementary School in Louisville had1,000 Year Flood hits Front Range been spending the week at the Cal-Wood Education Center in Jamestown and were unable to leave. On Friday night, the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson heard of their plight and sent seven helicopters, including four Blackhawks, to assist in airlifting the children and adults to Longmont. Major Earl Brown said the same helicopters had helped fight the June wildfire in the Black Forest area. “From drought to deluge,” he said, summing up the summer.
No emergencies were reported in most of Gilpin County, Rollinsville or Nederland. The Peak to Peak Highway from Black Hawk to the Gold Hill Road sustained minor debris and some washed out shoulders but remained open throughout the flood. It was like Nederland was in a bubble on top of a hill and everything ran down below us. Inconvenience was all local residents suffered.
Boulder County was covered by an area of rainwater almost the size of Connecticut. One Nederland area resident drove down Boulder Canyon Thursday morning and emailed his friends that it was a dangerous situation. Streets were flooded and Boulder Creek was a raging river. He advised people to stay home. It was only going to get worse.
By noon on Thursday, the Nederland Community Center was opened to take in evacuees and to offer shelter and food. The irony of that is most of the stranded people had not yet been evacuated, so the only visitors to take advantage of the center’s hospitality were a group of transients who had been camping much of the summer on East Magnolia Road by the former shooting area.
Volunteers fed them hot meals, some donated by local restaurants, and many created by the Nederland Food Pantry angels, yummy cinnamon rolls and banana bread brought in by residents — a community helping others in times of need.
1,000 Year Flood hits Front RangeFrancis Clark and Jamie Sommer from Madison, Wisconsin, had been camping, stopping on their way from Wisconsin to Arizona, when the roads were closed and they couldn’t continue on their way. They were in good spirits, playing a game of Scrabble in the NCC multi-purpose room.
Jamie had caught a cold and needed a dry, warm place to spend the night. They put their sleeping bags in a corner of the gym, where others were claiming their nests, on the softer floor.
“All the people cleared out from the campsite and we heard about this place. We are just wet and cold and dirty and hungry and everyone here has been as sweet as pie.”
Another couple said they hadn’t been able to cook since the preceding Saturday because all of their firewood was sodden with rain. They said their group came from Florida seven months ago and came up here to camp, but their tent has been leaking from the bottom up.
With five dogs in tow, the group chose to hang out at the entrance. The shelter closed on Saturday at noon.
At noon on Thursday, a 60-year-old weather record was shattered. The University of Colorado was closed, and 500 students, faculty and staff were evacuated from the ground-floor units in Newton Court, which affected 234 housing units. A large surge of water in Fourmile Canyon increased from 100 cubic feet per second to 1,000 cubic feet at 11a.m. Boulder Office of Emergency Management begged people to stay out of fast-moving water, and to avoid drinking water from streams or creeks or any ground water.
In the early afternoon, a mandatory evacuation of Jamestown was ordered, telling people to get out using Overland Road and head to Nederland. More than 250 people did not leave before all roads closed. Fourmile Canyon was evacuated, with many leaving up Poorman Road to Gold Run where they could get to Gold Hill. That exit was soon blocked by washed out roads.
An evacuation effort in Lyons rescued as many as 2,500 people. At this point Lyons was without sewer, water and power. A Type 11 Incident Management Team arrived to coordinate local responders and bring in more resources.
Jamestown residents were awaiting rescue in a school on a hill above the water and supplies were flown in by helicopter. By 5 p.m., 295 people were airlifted out of Jamestown.
By the end of Thursday, with continuous rain, the enormity of the flood was apparent. Boulder County was declared a state of emergency. Most weekend events were canceled and it was iffy if schools would reopen on Monday.
Nederland parents, those who could get to Boulder to go to work, if their place of business was open, began Facebooking play days for their children. The Nederland email networks were clogged with people wondering how to get out of Nederland.
Boulder Canyon, Coal Creek Canyon and Fourmile were closed so the only way down was by Magnolia Road to the canyon. Drivers were allowed to go from there to Boulder but were told they were not allowed to return past the barriers.
The most reliable way to the flatlands from Nederland was Highway 119 to Highway 6 to Highway 93 and then north to Boulder, about an-hour-and-a-half trip. Many mountain residents were impatient and texted and called fire departments and police and emergency numbers to try to find a quicker way out.
Residents were glued to their televisions and computers as images of the devastation below were broadcast. One uplifting video was that of a horse standing quietly in the middle of a field that had become a rapidly rising lake. He was tied to a fence post as the water rushed around his knees.
Animal lovers agonized over the fate of that horse. Later another video was shown of a man riding the horse bareback to dry ground as rescuers escorted them.
“This is clearly going to be a historic event,” National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini said in an interview. “The true magnitude is really just becoming obvious now.”
Uccellini said the Weather Service has initiated a review of its performance leading up to and during the event. Although the potential for heavy rainfall was in the agency’s forecasts a week in advance, he said, “Clearly the magnitude of the rainfall and the repetitiveness of it in some critical areas was not pinpointed” well ahead of time.
The flood of 2013 will be the new historical high-water mark for many affected rivers and streams. In a technical discussion on Thursday, the National Weather Service described the rainfall amounts as “biblical.”
On average, Boulder gets about 1.7 inches of rain during September, based on the 1981 to 2010 average. So far this month, Boulder has received 12.3 inches of rain. This smashes the record for the wettest month ever in Boulder, which was set in May 1995 when 9.59 inches of precipitation fell — and September isn’t even half over.
Not only that but the average yearly rainfall in Boulder is 20.68 inches. This means that Boulder picked up well over half its annual precipitation in just a couple of days. One meteorologist claims that if this rainfall had been snow, Boulder County would have been buried in 15 feet of the white stuff.
This comes on the heels of a summer when Boulder experienced a moderate drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. This summer also featured Colorado’s most destructive wildfire on record.
What caused this unprecedented amount of moisture? According to the NWS, during the past several weeks, the weather across the West has featured both an active Southwest monsoon and a broad area of low pressure at upper levels of the atmosphere, which has been pinned by other weather systems and prevented from moving out of the region. It was this persistent low pressure area that helped pull the moisture out of the tropics and into Colorado.
Signs point to the tropical Pacific being the source of the abundant moisture, according to the University of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies. From there, the moisture plume was transported northeastward, over Mexico and into Texas, and then northward by upper level winds.
This tropical air mass, which is more typical of the Gulf Coast than the Rocky Mountains, has been forced to move slowly up and over the Front Range by light southeasterly winds. This lifting process, known as orographic lift, allowed the atmosphere to wring out this unusually bountiful stream of moist air, dumping torrents of rain on the Boulder area for days on end.
The NWS said in an online discussion on Friday that the amount of precipitable water in the air over Colorado was still at record levels for this time of year, which is an indication that the potential for heavy rainfall remains high. The downpour continued for the next two days.
The previously largest flash flood occurred in the Big Thomson Canyon Flood in 1976, which resulted in 139 deaths after a slow-moving thunderstorm dumped a foot of rain in just four and a half hours, causing a massive wall of water to blast through the canyon. According to the NWS forecast office in Boulder on Friday, the river stage at the North Fork of the Big Thompson river had exceeded the Big Thompson Flood of 1976 by more than one foot.
http://www.helpcoloradonow.org/On Friday, commuters who had been traveling north to Gold Hill to hook up with Sunshine Canyon leading down to Mapleton in Boulder were cut off due to a mud mire on the Gold Hill Road. As people stood on one side of the washout, they could see people standing on the other side, unable to get past to go to Nederland. Some of them walked around the mess and exchanged cars, a creative solution to the problem.
The road was fixed Friday night, just in time to allow a couple hundred wedding guests to make it to the Colorado Mountain Ranch where local Nederland High School alumni Sandy Betters and Michael Buell were married. Although there was the possibility of exit roads washing out, as the bride and groom said their I do’s, the wedding was blessed with a window of non-rain air before the sodden gloom set in again.
By Sunday it was reported that six people were confirmed dead, 1,200 had been rescued, with 700 air evacs including 25 hoist lifts. Nederland was beginning to feel the effects of the storm, although they were minor compared to the disaster in neighboring mountain communities. The Nederland Community Center reception area, office and workout room were flooded.
Second Street, a commonly flooded area during runoff, was flooded but Jason Morrison, Nederland Public Works director, and his crew of excavators dug a trench to let the water flow across East Street towards the reservoir. Barker Reservoir had filled to the brim, but the overspill was not more than normal spring runoff. Morrison said that although Nederland had been spared any major damage, the washouts, potholes and flooded basements would provide plenty of work for the next month, or even months.
On Sunday morning, the lower half of Boulder Canyon was passable, but barely. Guard rails along Boulder Creek had been abandoned by their earthly support and had been been bent like a noodle by the power of the water. Waterfalls pushed mud onto the asphalt and then rocks and in some cases whole trees. In places the road buckled like a whoop-de-do, the bottom part ready to sink any moment.
By this time, 14,500 had been evacuated and 1,254 people were unaccounted for, but the majority of those were due to the fact that there was no power or cell phone in Jamestown, Lyons, Ward and Gold Hill. It was estimated at that time that 1,500 homes had been destroyed.
Nederland had lost power briefly on Saturday, but it was returned. During that time, a line formed outside the B&F Mountain Market and people were let in one at a time to buy essentials. On Saturday, the Kwikmart ran out of gas and the line of cars along the highway outside of the Cigarette Friendly gas station reminded old timers of the gas shortage lines in the 1970s.
On Monday, the Nederland Area Seniors met, as usual, for their lunch at the Community Center. Marilyn Fagerstrom of the Bar K Ranch located next to Jamestown said she was fine, her house was fine, but they had been cut off from their usual exit to Boulder and people had been coming to their house because many of the neighbors had no phone, no gas, no power and no food.
“There is lots of stress and people looking for people. Nederland is our lifeblood in this storm.”
John Brocklehurst who lives in Eldora said he was grateful to whoever built the house he lived in for putting it 15 feet above the creek that flows beside it. “If we ever got flooded here, Boulder would be demolished.”
1,000 Year Flood hits Front RangeAnne Snow reported that a river was running through her garage in Coughlin Meadows on Sugarloaf and then flowing out the back and heading downhill. The seniors were more quiet than usual, concerned about the cancellation of the upcoming Miners’ Days Contests planned for the ball field.
The Nederland Area Historic Society decided that it would be insensitive to go on with the celebration of our historical mining past. Kayla Evans said, “Many of these miners have volunteered their heavy equipment and their time to aid in the recovery efforts from the flood.
Also, there was a short window of opportunity for the event to take place, before winter work set in and the summer mining contest season was over. We should put out efforts to helping those affected by the flood.”
Evans has opened the Backdoor Theatre for showings of the Butler, the movie of the week, and will have a $5 night on Thursday at 7 p.m. The theater was not damaged by the flood. NCC coordinator Dawn Baumhover has been washed out of her office but the NAS has offered to share its space in the center.
Signs of digging out could be seen in the Coal Creek Canyon area on Monday. Heavy equipment worked on saving Stan Beug’s garage that had been undercut by a major sinkhole and washed out of rotted culvert pipes. Beug said he had lived in the house for 31 years and never seen anything even close to this.
He lives at the corner of Ranch Elsie Road where Coal Creek Canyon traffic was diverted. A sign saying “Garage Sale,” was posted on his endangered building. “You have to have a sense of humor,” he said, sporting his bright blue Wellies.
As of Tuesday morning, the rain had stopped, the sun emerged bright and hot and the forecast was for much of the same for the rest of the week. The storm was over but the recovery had just begun.
Road closures were still in place and would remain so for the undeterminent future. All parks, trails, regional trails, museums and open space areas are closed until further notice. All special events scheduled on Boulder County roads are canceled until Oct. 16 or until otherwise determined. Please contact Boulder County Transportation at 303-441-3900 for more information.
A Magnolia Road resident reported, “I went to four businesses in Nederland yesterday…All the business owners are really happy if you are coming to town for supplies…I heard B&F , the Nederland Feed Store, Dog House Video/ Dandelion and Ace Hardware said sales are up and they are there to help…Trucks are bringing in fuel and supplies regularly and the store owners want to accommodate your needs…They also expressed if we could all do a little more shopping in our town the infrastructure and facilities and businesses would thrive and grow…Just thought I would pass along their appreciation of your commerce and support, together we stand strong. I hope everyone is well. The blue skies and sun are back.”
As residents email each other about the quickest way to get to Boulder, local police and fire departments are asking that residents do not go beyond orange coned road closures even though it seems as if they can. The roads are unstable. Rocks and mudslides continue their downward slide and those taking risks are putting themselves in danger as well as the rescuers who would have to assist them get out of whatever trouble they got themselves into.
On Tuesday morning, lines of vehicles leaving Nederland headed to Gold Hill where they were stopped on1,000 Year Flood hits Front Range the Peak to Peak Highway and were allowed through in blocks of cars at a time. Gold Hill residents were besieged by traffic, but most of them were okay being used as an alternative route to Boulder. It was reported that it takes about 60 minutes from Nederland to the bottom of Mapleton.
Nederland residents have much to be grateful for and can show their gratitude by sending monetary donations. Go to www.HelpColoradoNow.org. Or The Red Cross opened shelters in Commerce City, Erie, Loveland, Longmont, Boulder and other towns. They need trained volunteers to help. Learn more: http://www.redcross.org/co/denver/volunteer. The Red Cross also asks for donations. Call 1-800-REDCROSS to donate.
The Salvation Army is bringing in help from other areas to assist with its shelters and its program for feeding first responders. You can donate money at www.imsalvationarmy.org or call 1-800-SAL-ARMY (1-800-725-2769) and designate “Colorado Floods.”
Donate household goods. While in-kind donations are not currently being stored for disaster victims, those items can help the Salvation Army in its ongoing mission. To donate, visit www.SATruck.com or call 1-800-SA-TRUCK.
Foothills United Way has established the ‘Foothills Flood Relief Fund’ to be able to respond to the effects of these storms. Organizers expect to use this fund for immediate relief as well as longer-term recovery in Boulder and Broomfield Counties. The Fund is accessible online at www.unitedwayfoothills.org/floodrelief.
Boulder Valley Humane Society is accepting animals needing shelter from evacuated areas of Boulder County. They need a variety of items including heavy blankets, creamy peanut butter (for dog treats), bottles, KONG Classic rubber toys, Large, heavy-duty storage bins and more. See the full list: http://www.boulderhumane.org/donate/wish-list They also need volunteers: http://www.boulderhumane.org/get-involved/volunteer and donations: http://www.boulderhumane.org/donate/give-today
This flood will long be remembered as the epic, biblical event that broke homes, bridges, roads and lives, but did not break the heart and spirit of Boulder County people.

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Barbara Lawlor

Barbara is a reporter for The Mountain-Ear.