Sept. 15, 2013 -- The small mountain town of Jamestown, Colo., has been cut off because of the Boulder County flood. FEMA Urban Search & Rescue teams have been deployed to the state to help residents. Photo courtesy of Steve Zumwalt/FEMA.
By Stephen J. Miller, Region 8 Regional Emergency Management Specialist
On Sept. 11, while the nation remembered those lost during the 9/11 attacks, the state of Colorado was in the midst of a disaster. It all started innocently enough. The badly needed rain began to hit the ground early in the morning. The air stream was running moisture up from the Gulf of Mexico. The weather radar showed a track of what appeared to be a continuous flow of heavy rain, which would soak the state, from Colorado Springs north, along the foothills up to Fort Collins and beyond. The rain continued not for hours, but days. Six days to be exact.
The last historic flood in Colorado was in 1976, the Big Thompson River Flood. On July 31, 1976, a violent rainstorm sent a rampaging wall of water through Big Thompson Canyon, returning it to its primordial state. The massive millennial flood killed 144 residents and visitors at one of Colorado's most popular destinations. Never to happen again they said in 1976. They were wrong.
This past week's rain water quickly topped the man-made reservoirs, filled the rivers to record levels well beyond flood stage, millions of cubic feet of water cascaded into surrounding communities, miles of roads into these communities were ripped apart, countless bridges were swept away, hundreds of homes and businesses were flooded or totally destroyed, entire communities were evacuated, and there were days of uncertainty regarding the well-being of residents stranded in isolated communities. The stress on everyday life was multiplied for both direct and indirect victims seeing their state, homes and lives shattered by events beyond their control.
Unlike other disasters where the tornado lasts a matter of minutes, the onslaught of this immediate disaster situation has been an ongoing event for over a week. While the rain finally stopped on day six, the flooding is still occurring as the water passes through the river paths, the over the top water is still high and limiting access to communities, and rescue operations and death counts are still being conducted. It is only now, on day seven, that the true magnitude of the damage is becoming more and more apparent to citizens and government officials. The personal and economic loss to these communities is staggering. Predictions are that it will take years to recover and revitalize the infrastructure destroyed and the spirit of the residents. The cost to rebuild can only be a guess.
So the preparedness lessons to learn are many. Hundred year floods have no calendar. 1976 to 2013 is only 37 years. Individuals need to respond to evacuation calls. Community planning and zoning must recognize the potential danger in Mother Nature as we permit building in flood plains. Family emergency plans do serve a purpose in events that leave little time to respond to an immediate crisis. Training and preparing for emergencies is not time wasted. And the list goes on…
May the Colorado experience be a warning to all and further encourage you to join the National Preparedness Month effort.