My family moved to Boulder in the summer of 1968. On May 5-9, 1969, hard rains produced the biggest flood in decades. As a 7-year-old the 3 feet of water in our (unfinished) basement seemed super cool, sort of like having an indoor swimming pool.
Growing up in Boulder the “100 Year Flood”, was part of the local lexicon, like fallout shelters were for families in the 60’s; one of those legendary things that can’t really happen. We know about these things and plan for them, right? Every summer at 10 a.m. on the first Monday of each month, Boulder tests its emergency warning system – deafeningly loud sirens and a booming voice over the loudspeakers chillingly announcing, “THIS IS A WARNING SYSTEM TEST.”
But on September 12-15, 2013, when the proverbial “100 Year Flood” actually happened, it was a shocker. For one thing, no one ever thought a big flood would happen in September, when summer monsoon storms typically taper off and thunderstorm producing convection is weak. This year the monsoon was stubborn, and a confluence of static weather systems and particularly abundant monsoon moisture produced a cataclysm that the typically subdued National Weather Service forecasters termed “biblical”.
The hard rain started on September 11, and that night my wife and I lay in bed listening as the skies opened up with the deluge. Thunder and lightning sent our cat scurrying for cover. Then the sirens started. That night alone it rained 7”, exceeding the record of 5.5” for the entire month of September. And it didn’t stop. By the time the weather system finally moved out, some stations had recorded 17″ of precipitation (Boulder had received 12″ total so far this year).
The next morning curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to go my usual run up Green Mountain to see what was up. It was stunning to see how every usually tiny trickle had turned into a rushing cascade. The trails were washed out everywhere, and huge new drainage channels had been created literally over night. Foot bridges over several little creeks had simply disappeared. I foolishly decided to run down Bear Canyon, one of my favorite trails. The trail crosses the creek half a dozen times, and normally you simply step over a little trickle of water. But this time each crossing was increasingly life-threatening. The farther down I pushed the less thrilled I was about having to trudge (and wade) back up. It took me maybe 20 minutes of thrashing around to work out the final crossing, which involved jumping across a narrow section of rushing stream a few feet above a big pour-off. Sticking the jump, I breathed a sigh of relief. The rest was a simple jog back to town. Later that day the City Manager signed an order closing all Open Space indefinitely due to dangerous conditions.
Two days later there was a break in the rain. I’d been feeling cooped up, but with my usual trail runs on City Open Space shut down I wasn’t sure where I could go. I decided to see if I could get into the hills. My plan was to take some nice, usually sleepy mountain roads into up to the historical mining towns of Wall Street, Salina and Gold Hill. By now I’d seen the pictures on the news – the road washouts, and the towns of Lyons and Estes Park underwater. I just figured I’d see how far I could get. I simply wasn’t prepared for the devastation I found. MILES of paved and dirt roads were completely destroyed, leaving Wall Street and Salina cut-off from the world. The center of Salina (really just about 10 houses) was completely destroyed. Houses and cars were in the raging creek. The road was basically gone. People were walking around in a sort of daze. A military helicopter buzzed overhead, assessing the situation. As I struggled on up towards Gold Hill, the route now a technical ascent, I wondered if this road could ever be rebuilt. Million dollar homes were perched undamaged up on the hillsides, but they may be worthless due to the two mile hike required to reach them. Reaching the town of Gold Hill, it sits on a ridge so there was no hint of the cataclysm in the canyon just a couple miles below.
In Boulder the rain finally stopped around 9:00 a.m. on September 16. The Sun timidly poked through the clouds as I jogged along city streets, many of which were still running with water. There was mud everywhere, which quickly dried and turned to dust, churned up by traffic. Cops stopped to remove barricades from recently flooded areas, while yellow police tape blocked off the most damaged areas. Piles of soaked carpet, insulation and furniture lined the sidewalks. In the wake of Boulder’s biggest flood in recorded history, some people lost their homes, tragically some even lost their lives, others are dealing with little more than flooded basements, and some of us very lucky ones are just wondering where we’re going to run tomorrow.
Mother Nature has re-distributed the landscape, and it will a very long time before this event is in the rear view mirror.