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Disaster! 

Could a flash flood cripple the Springs?

Bet your life on it

click to enlarge This house, identified as the park superintendents - house, at the site of the Uintah Street Bridge along - Monument Creek after the flood of 1935. - PIKES PEAK LIBRARY DISTRICT
  • Pikes Peak Library District
  • This house, identified as the park superintendents house, at the site of the Uintah Street Bridge along Monument Creek after the flood of 1935.

By May 1935, Colorado Springs was a modestly prosperous, visibly self-satisfied community of 30,000 or so. The Great Depression nearly had run its course, and sales were brisk for downtown merchants. Cady L. Daniels, a car dealership at the corner of Kiowa and Bijou streets, offered a brand new 1935 Chevy for $618.50. If that was too much, you could get a "real steal" at Bill Stewart Auto, which advertised a '31 Auburn "small 8" coupe for $235. If you hurried, you could pick up either of 'em before Memorial Day, which, since it was to fall on a Thursday, would kick off a four-day weekend for many Springsites.

The weather, it appeared, would cooperate. The forecast in the Gazette's May 29 issue was reassuring. "Generally fair, except occasional showers in mountain districts -- temperature normal."

Thursday morning was rainy, but not alarmingly so. It had been a wet month along the Front Range, with some rain almost every day. But as the day wore on, the rain intensified. To the north, the sky was coal black. Storm cells had coalesced and stalled a few miles north of the city. Monument Creek began to rise.

The water kept rising. It was gradual at first, but then an unprecedented flood crest swept into the city. Within a few hours, much of Colorado Springs lay in ruins.

Even though its press room was without power, the Gazette managed to produce a two-page extra by late afternoon.

"The destructive floodwaters from half a dozen cloudbursts swept through Colorado Springs in all its fury shortly after noon ' tho ample warning was given to most persons in the path of the oncoming waters, many failed to realize the danger and remained in their homes," the newspaper reported. "Others did not receive warning before the onrushing water struck."

The next day, when the floodwaters had receded, the Gazette's reporters detailed the damage.

"Dozens of homes in the low-lying areas were lifted from their foundation and moved ' a few were carried as far as 400 feet.

"Monument Valley Park, one of the city's most beautiful recreation areas, was completely ravaged. All bridges across Monument and Fountain Creek, except the Bijou Street Viaduct were destroyed ' What the damage was to the Municipal steam power plant could not be determined, but [then-city manager] E.M. Moseley stated that the water stood seven feet deep in its basement."

As many as 18 people died in the flood. In a particularly harrowing incident, hundreds of people gathered on the bluff above Monument Creek, as rescuers attempted for hours to save a couple stranded on relatively high ground midstream, standing on the roof of a car.

"The people on the car could see the crowd about them. They could see cameras trained on them, by people who could not have done anything to help them. They must have known that the crowd was waiting, knowing that they would be gone ' the car moved. In an instant it was swept out from under the pair, and they fell into the inky water ' the crowd was stunned. Many of the men who had tried to rescue them ran down to the shores of this veritable sea. There was nothing to do. It was over."

click to enlarge Raging floodwaters with demolished bridge (at right), - and buildings in the distance. - PIKES PEAK LIBRARY DISTRICT
  • Pikes Peak Library District
  • Raging floodwaters with demolished bridge (at right), and buildings in the distance.

In a matter of hours, Monument Creek had been utterly transformed, from a quiet, meandering stream to a vast river. At the Midland Terminal railroad bridge over the creek (since replaced by the pedestrian bridge that now leads to America the Beautiful Park), water depth was estimated at 32 feet. By then, the creek was half a mile wide, and most of the south and near west sides of the city were submerged.

One man, taking refuge in a filling station on South Nevada Avenue, was swept away by the flood. He grabbed a log and rode it all the way to Fountain.

The 1935 flood was the "flood of record" from Colorado Springs to Fountain. Seventy years later, it has all but passed from local memory.

Yet, as this year's flood in New Orleans reminds us, another flood like this in Colorado Springs would bring devastating consequences.

The explosive growth of the Pikes Peak region, where population has increased tenfold since 1935, has created conditions that would vastly magnify the destructive power of a major flood. In such a catastrophe, many lives might be lost, and property damage likely would amount to billions of dollars. Are we prepared? No. And is a repeat likely? Yes.

The myth of the 100-year flood

Flash floods, resulting from intense localized rainfall, are common along Colorado's Front Range. Major floods have occurred in Colorado Springs in 1864, 1886, 1935 and 1965.

Other cities along the Front Range have been similarly affected -- Pueblo in 1921, Denver in 1965, and, most recently, Fort Collins in 1997. Two floods rank as the worst natural disasters in Colorado's history: As many as 350 people died in the 1921 Pueblo flood, and Loveland's Big Thompson flood of 1976 accounted for 145 deaths.

Such events commonly are described in terms of their probable recurrence: a 10-year flood, a 100-year flood, a 500-year flood. In any given year, there's a 10 percent chance of a 10-year flood, a 1 percent chance of a 100-year flood, and so forth. The 1935 flood is classified as a 100-year flood. Sounds scientific -- but it isn't, since reliable weather data only goes back a few decades.

At Colorado Springs Fire Department headquarters on Printers Parkway, senior emergency managers Scott Smith and Bret Waters show a reporter a series of maps and photographs, which overlay 1935's high-water mark on modern Colorado Springs.

A purple dotted line shows how a similar scenario today would result in floodwaters topping I-25 at Cimarron Street, submerging much of the Martin Drake Power Plant and overwhelming the massive water treatment facility on Las Vegas Street.

"If you think Pueblo's mad at us now, wait'll we get a 1935 repeat," one of the participants remarks wryly, anticipating a massive release of raw sewage down a raging Fountain Creek.

click to enlarge Mud and debris fill Colorado Avenue on the citys west - side after the Memorial Day 1935 flood. The car in the - background sits in water and mud. The flood damaged - or destroyed numerous businesses along the street. - PIKES PEAK LIBRARY DISTRICT
  • Pikes Peak Library District
  • Mud and debris fill Colorado Avenue on the citys west side after the Memorial Day 1935 flood. The car in the background sits in water and mud. The flood damaged or destroyed numerous businesses along the street.

Farther downstream, toward the city of Fountain, the maps show bridges topped, roads impassable and mobile home communities directly in the flood's path. Would they simply be swept away? How would the residents be warned? How could they escape?

The city's detection and warning system has been created and maintained by partnerships between local governments and the feds. More than 50 sensors throughout the region transmit real-time weather data to repeater stations, which send it on to the National Weather Service in Pueblo. Some 200 individual weather spotters also furnish information.

In the case of a 1935 repeat, the area would have a lot more warning. But it remains questionable whether those at risk from floodwaters could be evacuated in time.

"In such an event, we might see the city cut in half," says Waters. "I-25 [would be] impassable and unusable, bridges down or overtopped, and literally thousands of 911 calls for assistance.

"It's a numbers game. We only have so many police, so many sheriffs, so many firefighters, so many vehicles and fire apparatus. Many of those vehicles might be unusable ' people are so used, here and everywhere, to calling 911, and knowing that help is on the way. It might not be possible."

So what would be the main priority of the city and county?

Smith and Waters don't hesitate.

"To save lives."

Paying off the rain gods

City Councilman Jerry Heimlicher believes the city, and other regional governments, need to be much more proactive in planning for such a catastrophe. With the support of other elected officials, he's asked the city administration to come to Council next month with worst-case scenarios for flood, fire and other natural disasters.

"I want to know how we're gonna evacuate people, how we're gonna warn them," Heimlicher says. "We're not going to have the luxury of a Katrina, where they had days and days to prepare. We'll only have a few hours."

When Heimlicher learned of the magnitude of the '35 flood, he was stunned.

click to enlarge The washed-out road and bridge at Colorado Avenue - and Monument Creek. People standing at the far side of - the creek are surveying the damage. - PIKES PEAK LIBRARY DISTRICT
  • Pikes Peak Library District
  • The washed-out road and bridge at Colorado Avenue and Monument Creek. People standing at the far side of the creek are surveying the damage.

"We have to be prepared," he says. "We need to protect people. We used to have warning sirens -- they still do in Manitou -- but [Colorado Springs] took them out years ago. I asked why, but I never did get an answer."

Eve Gruntfest, a geography professor at UCCS, has studied flash floods for the last 25 years. Author of scores of technical papers and co-author of half a dozen books on the subject, Gruntfest has been exasperated by what she sees as the city's lack of preparedness.

Flash floods, she says, are exceptionally dangerous for two reasons: They happen very quickly, and people don't know what to do.

The year after moderate flooding in 1999 caused extensive damage in Manitou Springs, Gruntfest prepared a severe flash flood scenario for that city. (See "A day of destruction. ") The model for her scenario was the Big Thompson flood of 1976, when, in a narrow stream canyon west of Loveland, 145 people died.

In Manitou's case, assuming far less rainfall volume in the mountains west of the city than in the '35 flood, Gruntfest's simulation resulted in at least 47 deaths and the utter destruction of the business district. Many of the hypothetical deaths were caused by citizen ignorance, not insufficient warning.

"There's nothing magic about the geography of that canyon that is different than the vulnerability of the Manitou Springs-Colorado Springs area," Gruntfest says. "We have just been lucky -- but, like in New Orleans, luck is not enough to count on for the long term."

The detection and warning systems currently in place, Gruntfest says, are wholly inadequate.

"I've always said our detection system is paying off the rain gods ' I would be so pleasantly surprised if you can find someone to tell you how any warning message will get to anyone when they need to know ' other than a few officials."

"Boats Float, Cars Don"t"

When asked, Smith and Waters cite programs that either are in place or being prepared to increase public awareness and shorten the amount of time before residents are warned of danger.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) radios, which automatically broadcast weather warnings, have been placed in dozens of places, including schools, hospitals and nursing homes. A host of government publications and pamphlets can be had that tell you how to protect yourself in a flash flood.

In an actual event, all local broadcast media continuously would relay warnings and information to the public.

click to enlarge Just after the storm, a truck sits up to its axles in - floodwater on Colorado Avenue. - PIKES PEAK LIBRARY DISTRICT
  • Pikes Peak Library District
  • Just after the storm, a truck sits up to its axles in floodwater on Colorado Avenue.

The programs are well-meaning, but do they work? How many people know they're at risk because they live on, or near, a floodplain? How many people know what to do in a flash flood?

The answers aren't clear. There never has been a government-sponsored scientific poll to measure flood awareness among Springs citizens. And although emergency service managers have used the usual tools of public bureaucracies to enhance public awareness -- press conferences, public meetings, announcements -- it's not clear that these have had any effect.

In Las Vegas, for example, the Clark County Regional Flood Control District sponsored a series of witty billboards. Showing cars caught in floodwaters, with captions such "Not to be Used as a Flotation Device," or "Boats Float; Cars Don't!" the boards were so effective that even visitors learned they ought to get out of their cars in a flood, a subsequent study found.

Yet in a recent interview, Councilman Heimlicher readily admitted he didn't know that, in a flash flood, people should get out of their cars and climb to safety.

"I guess most of us think that you'd be safer in your car in a storm situation," he said.

Gruntfest says it's encouraging that Colorado Springs finally has a fee-based stormwater utility which, she says, will positively affect storm preparedness.

Still, it's clear that, compared to other cities, Colorado Springs is lagging. Given the severity of the 1935 flood, you'd think that one of the first tasks of emergency service managers would be to model the probable consequences of a repeat incident.

The Springs has changed dramatically over the past 70 years. Then, the city ended at Fillmore Street to the north, Union Boulevard to the west and Cheyenne Road to the south. Hundreds of thousands of people have moved here, and hundreds of thousands of acres of impermeable surface have been added within the city and county.

In a modern-day flood, stormwater would enter the creeks much faster, and at greater volumes. What would the result be? How much more water might flow to the confluence of Fountain and Monument creeks? In 1935, every sewer line was ruptured, and every bridge across Monument Creek was destroyed. What about today's bridges?

Waters and Smith, along with city public communications employee John Leavitt, concede that those questions cannot be fully answered. Engineers might have opinions about the bridges, but city officials have just started figuring out how much impermeable surface actually exists, let alone what impact it'd have in a flood.

Half of the Mississippi

Some data may be contained in the $3 million Fountain Creek Watershed Study, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been working on since 2000.

This study, which is intended mainly to measure the effects of Springs urbanization and wastewater discharges on the Fountain between Colorado Springs and Pueblo, is not scheduled for completion until 2007. One clue: "The Pi'on peak flow [at the midpoint between the two cities] would increase to 63,000 [cubic feet per second] ' with development in Colorado Springs." Simple extrapolation from the Corps' data suggests that under such a scenario, the volume of water at America the Beautiful Park in downtown Colorado Springs could be as much as 80,000 cfs. That's almost half the average flow of the Mississippi River in St. Louis -- an inconceivable amount of water in the Springs, uncontrollable, uncontainable.

And with such a flood, what would happen? It's reasonable to assume that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of structures would be destroyed, with damages running into the billions -- and that the lives of many citizens would be at risk. How, in the chaos and confusion, with emergency workers overwhelmed, the city cut in half, lashed by torrential rain and hail, would authorities target and protect the vulnerable?

The short answer: They wouldn't. No warning system is perfect, and flash floods happen so quickly that door-to-door notification wouldn't work. Emergency managers are considering a computer-generated reverse 911 system, but that wouldn't reach folks just with cell phones, or without phones, or people who just don't bother to answer.

So people need to be informed. As a candid Bret Waters remarks, "Take home this message: People need to be prepared, and it's so important for individuals to be responsible for themselves."

  • Could a flash flood cripple the Springs? Bet your life on it

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