In September of 2013, a weeklong downpour hit Boulder County, Colorado, bringing more rainfall in a week than the county would often get in an entire year. The resulting floods and mudslides threw residents’ lives into chaos, while destroying property and leaving an indelible mark on the county’s landscape.
Before the storm, Boulder had roasted through a late summer heat wave, with Sunday, September 8th tying a heat record at 93 degrees. Locals were ready for autumn’s cooler weather, ideal for hiking and biking in the area’s extensive Open Space trail network.
Students at the University of Colorado had recently embarked on a new semester, and fresh off their first home football win in two years, they looked forward to another home game on Saturday versus Fresno State.
Unfortunately, that game would end up being cancelled, in only the second such occurrence for C.U. since the assassination of President Kennedy. Before that ill-fated game day, however, Boulder residents would have to endure a storm catastrophe they could never have imagined as they sweated through Sunday’s summer heat.
At first, Monday, September 9th delivered welcome relief from the scalding sun. A much-anticipated cold front moved in, bringing clouds and eventually, a cooling rain.
Monday’s rain turned into a persistent downpour, lasting all of Tuesday as well. The region needed rain, so many viewed this precipitation as helpful, rather than a cause for concern.
When the downpour still remained in full force on Wednesday, it began to create some issues, however, and authorities took note. Local Fire Chief Bret Gibson said, "Monday and Tuesday, our concern levels weren't that high," although, "By Wednesday morning, we knew we had achieved ground saturation."
The water had finally soaked the dry soil, and the earth could not accept any more moisture. Water would now stay on the surface, following whatever path gravity dictated.
People continued with their normal lives that day, though drenched by rain in the process. As Wednesday progressed, however, the rainwater began to make its presence felt in new ways. Local park authorities closed Boulder's hiking and biking trails, due to excessively muddy conditions. In a more concerning development, just past 6:00pm that evening, police received reports of standing water covering Vista Parkway, along with a manhole cover forced open by the water.
From there, the situation quickly escalated. Police officers responded to reports of flooding in a number of places, but soon found themselves calling for backup, stuck in the rising floodwater themselves. Residents reported 3-foot tall floodwater surges on streets and electrical transformers catching fire from the storm.
By 10:00 that night, the city concluded that Boulder Creek represented a serious hazard, sounding flood sirens to warn residents to move to higher ground. Soon after, the University of Colorado began evacuating people from its facilities.
By the next day, Thursday September 12th, it was evident that the county and its residents were caught in the throes of a dangerous flood, with devastating consequences. Multiple buildings had collapsed or were knocked from their foundations by the floodwater. People found themselves trapped in the upper floors of their homes, as water flooded the lower floors.
One person who found herself in that situation, Alli Jones, recalled the chaos and confusion of the moment: "I thought, 'What am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to turn the power off? Am I supposed to leave the lights on?' I thought, 'If I stand in the water, will I get electrocuted?'"
That morning, Sheriff Joe Pelle officially asked residents to refrain from driving, as many roads were now badly damaged and emergency personnel needed clear roads to reach flood victims.
A Thursday morning forecast from the National Weather Service acknowledged the severity of the storm’s conditions. Part of the message read, "NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE DENVER/BOULDER CO ... 941 AM MDT THU SEP 12 2013/ UPDATE/MAJOR FLOODING/FLASH FLOODING EVENT UNDERWAY AT THIS TIME WITH BIBLICAL RAINFALL AMOUNTS REPORTED IN MANY AREAS IN/NEAR THE FOOTHILLS -- THINGS ARE NOT LOOKING GOOD."
Dangerous flash floods were reported in various locations. Resident Gurpreet Gill remembers the incredible power of those floods, tossing heavy objects among the swell of water, "We sat there watching this massive wall of water coming down," she said. "We saw a car, we saw a boat, we saw a propane tank."
Boulder Police Chief Mark Beckner recalls touring the western part of Boulder city, at Arapahoe Avenue and Ninth Street, "We sat there watching. We had waterfalls coming off people's yards, falling off people's yards, into the streets."
By Friday, mudslides had become a critical issue, trapping people as the mud covered roads and smashed into houses.
Responding to the area’s need, the US National Guard began evacuations, rescuing exhausted residents trapped in Boulder and Jamestown on Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters, along with ground vehicles. These evacuations continued early Saturday morning, as the weather calmed and the sun broke through for the first time in 5 days. Campers, trapped by the floodwater at a children’s camp in Jamestown, were finally rescued. Over 1,200 people would be evacuated in total, in what would become the largest airlift evacuation in the US since Hurricane Katrina.
Although there had been some deliberation about it, Saturday's football game was cancelled, to keep fans safe and avoid spreading exhausted emergency personnel too thinly.
Unfortunately, Saturday’s rescue progress was halted on Sunday morning when the rain returned in force, causing new flash floods and grounding the busy helicopter crews. Rescuers were forced to continue at a slower pace on the ground, where possible. The rain finally relented for good that afternoon, allowing rescuers to finish their work and residents to begin thinking about the next chapter in their lives, post-flood.
In total, the storm brought 17.15 inches of rain to Boulder from September 9th through 16th. Meteorology experts would later estimate that the county had experienced a “once in 1,000 years” event, with only a 0.1% chance of such a weather catastrophe occurring in a given year.
The flood left immense destruction in Boulder County, leading to 4 deaths and crippling property damage. Approximately 4,000 homes were damaged, with 349 of them completely destroyed. In less than a week, people suddenly found themselves without a home, facing a staggering repair bills, and struggling to put their lives back together.
In spite of the flood’s destruction, however, people did find the strength to persevere and begin rebuilding. Neighbors, sharing the same plight, sprung into action to help each other. Local business owner Sam Sussman reflected, "I've learned if you're gonna be in a disaster, you want to be in Boulder, Colorado, because you find out that people here are actually nice."
During the storm, President Obama declared a state of emergency for Boulder and other Colorado counties. The state of Colorado also classified these places as disaster emergency areas. These designations allowed federal and state resources to begin flowing to residents to help in the recovery effort. During the first few days that FEMA funds became available, 7,600 people from Boulder County would apply.
In the months that followed, the flood occupied the forefront of resident’s minds as the county repaired damaged infrastructure and people rebuilt their lives. One local couple even decided to name their daughter River, to mark the flood that left a lasting impact on their lives. Residents’ resilience and willingness to help each other has allowed the county to make great progress in recovery, and Boulder remains the vibrant, outdoorsy community that it always has been.
This article is intended for informational purposes only. Before beginning any construction project at your home or taking steps to prepare for an emergency, please ensure that you take necessary safety precautions; consult construction professionals, your local authorities, and disaster safety experts whenever necessary. Water Damage Defense accepts no responsibility for the actions you take during an emergency or as you prepare for one.