'Likely the worst we shall ever see'
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Flood of 2013Follow these links for additional coverage of the flood of 2013.
Lyons recovery could be months away
Longmont industrial area hit hard
Boulder businesses make do amid mud
Agencies offer financial help in wake of flooding
Area businesses pitch in for flood relief
An attorney's guide to dealing with disasters
In relaying the magnitude of devastation in his state, Hickenlooper pleaded, "September 2013 floods may prove to be the worst natural disaster in the history of our state, and is likely the worst we shall ever see in our lifetimes."
The people of Colorado can only hope.
For a drought-stricken state that has seen hundreds lose homes to wildfires in recent years, few would have imagined that the slightest signs of rain could ever cause uneasiness in so many residents as they do now. But as Hickenlooper noted, widespread impacts of the flooding were unprecedented in state history.
Boulder County was one of the areas hit hardest.
The latest preliminary estimates from the state indicate that more than 16,000 homes were damaged and another 1,882 destroyed, although those numbers continue to rise.
The Boulder County Office of Emergency Management's early assessments – covering unincorporated areas and the towns of Jamestown and Lyons alone – yielded 349 homes destroyed, 428 with major damage and 3,426 with minor damage. Another 87 commercial buildings in those areas received major or minor damage, with four destroyed.
That's not counting any of the hundreds of buildings flooded in cities such as Boulder or Longmont, where businesses were hit by damage ranging from the thousands to the millions of dollars and residents were left scrambling to see if they were one of the few who carried a flood policy on top of their homeowner's insurance.
Eight flood-related deaths have been confirmed in Colorado, including four in Boulder County. Early fears were that those totals could be much higher. Boulder County worked through more than 800 reports of unaccounted-for people during the storm before finally whittling that number down to zero the week after the flooding as people who had been stranded without means to communicate were tracked down.
More than 1,600 people in the county had to be evacuated, including hundreds by air, by rescuers from the National Guard and other agencies.
Xcel Energy Inc., estimates that 1,400 of its Boulder County customers were without electricity during the height of the flooding, and about 7,000 lost natural gas service.
The chaos all stemmed from a monsoonal flow of moisture that approached from the tropical Pacific and got stuck over Colorado's Front Range between a pair of upper-level weather systems that had parked themselves to the east and west.
"It was just one of those setups where everything came together just right to allow us to have that sustained moisture and flow up against the foothills," said Kari Bowen, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Boulder.
The rain began Sept. 9, and the area hadn't seen the last of the storm until a week later. In all, most parts of Boulder received 16 to 17 inches of rain, tripling the previous record for the city for the entire month of September. The amounts were off the Weather Service's probability charts, which indicated that such rainfall should happen in Boulder on average less than once every 1,000 years.
Longmont, which was hit hard by flooding of the St. Vrain River and Left Hand Creek, received up to eight inches of rain during the same period. Lyons, cut off by flooding of the St. Vrain, received about 10 inches.
Most of the rain fell over the course of about 72 hours late in the week of Sept. 9.
The rain saturated the ground and caused standing water in places not accustomed to flooding. It caused rivers such as the St. Vrain and Boulder and Left Hand creeks to rush down mountain canyons onto the plains, overflowing and even bursting through their banks in places, flooding some areas that weren't even located in flood plains.
For a couple of days at the height of the flooding, Longmont was cut in half by the overflowed St. Vrain and Left Hand. Lyons, meanwhile, was completely isolated because roads into town were flooded or wiped out.
Damage to roads is staggering. Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman Amy Ford said 40 percent of U.S. Highway 36 between Boulder and Estes Park is a total loss. Colorado Highway 72 in Coal Creek Canyon is 50 percent destroyed. Colorado 119 up Boulder Canyon is 20 percent gone. To the north, in Larimer County, U.S. 34 along the Big Thompson River from Estes Park to Loveland is 85 percent destroyed.
Statewide, 200 lane miles of state highways and roads were wiped out. Thirty bridges were destroyed and at least another 20 damaged.
The U.S. Department of Transportation so far has made $35 million in emergency relief funds available to repair roads and bridges, and its early road and bridge damage cost estimates in the state totaled $152 million. The true price tag is likely to be much higher.
Boulder County's preliminary estimate on damage to roads and bridges came out to $89.9 million. In his letter to Congress, Hickenlooper asked that the amount of Emergency Relief Program funding available through the Federal Highways Administration be raised for Colorado – from its normal cap of $100 million per disaster to a cap of $500 million, as it was for states affected by Hurricane Sandy.
Chip Paulson, a principal engineer with MWH Global in Broomfield and a stormwater infrastructure expert, said one reason the damage in many areas of the county was so severe is that many facilities such as urban parks or subdivisions – and even some roads – are designed only to withstand 10- or 25-year weather events, not 100-year floods or 1,000-year rains such as what occurred. The expense is too high, he said, to gird every facility for the worst.
"The magnitude of the event probably exceeded the design standards for many of those structures," Paulson said.
Official estimates of the damage done are still being tabulated by state and local agencies, although the amount is likely to reach into the billions of dollars.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has opened disaster relief centers up and down the Front Range to help individuals and businesses cope with the damage.
Of the 17 counties reporting flood damage, nine – Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Clear Creek, El Paso, Jefferson, Larimer, Logan and Weld – have been declared eligible for FEMA assistance.
In those counties as of Sept. 23, more than 16,800 households had registered for FEMA assistance, and the agency so far had approved more than $22 million in assistance.
The Small Business Administration, which offers disaster recovery loans for businesses and individuals, had issued 3,700 applications to businesses and nonprofit organizations that had been either FEMA referrals or had met with the SBA in person at a disaster recovery center.
Local government agencies also have done what they can to help ease the burden of repairs. In Boulder and Longmont, the building permit process for certain flood-related repairs has been sped up. Boulder created a special permit for such repairs that is free of charge, and the Longmont City Council was to discuss taking a similar measure at its Sept. 24 meeting.
"We understand there's quite a bit of rebuilding that needs to occur," said Boulder spokeswoman Sarah Huntley, "and we want to aid residences and businesses in that."
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