Big Thompson Flood July 31, 1976
I have lived here in Colorado nearly all of my adult life, starting with my college years at CU in Boulder, and with the exception of a few blocks of time when I had to be somewhere else. As most of you know, I just returned here, finally and permanently, after 6 years in California. Just 2 months ago I found a lovely place to live and re-settled back in.
Fast forward to now. I have never in my life seen unrelenting, violent, biting rain like this, and I have lived in some rainy, swampy places. A good year of precipitation in the Denver, Colorado area is around 12 inches of rain – we are considered the western “high plains” where tall grass naturally grows and herds of antelope used to roam by the thousands. Peaceful rivers run through us and Indian camps were plentiful along their banks just 100 years ago. In the high mountains, situated just right there in your face to the west, we almost routinely accumulate snow in the hundreds of inches, and we love that. But in this past 4 days, we along the “front range” of the Rockies, (an area which parallels and hugs the first steep hills that hint at the larger mountains to our west) have become a flooded area that stretches over 150 miles long from approximately Ft. Collins to our north down south through Boulder and Denver and its suburbs to Colorado Springs. It also extends to our east, into those flat farming plains. I experienced 7 inches of rain two nights ago! 7 INCHES! And we were told to expect additional staggering amounts in the following 3 nights, and the weather guys and gals were correct. Since then, I have been drying out and waiting to see when the second shoe drops. I am in sunshine right now, at this nano-moment, here in south Denver, but the rains continue to the north and east of me. They are calling this a flood of Biblical proportions.
The charming mountain community of Evergreen, just 45 minutes west of Denver, where we raised our kids, has a dam at one end of Main Street that holds back the friendly, peace-loving, agreeably contained Evergreen Lake where fishing and ice skating are a few of it’s seasonal pleasures. The lake is Evergreen’s water supply. Bear Creek flows into that lake from farther west and its water continues over the dam and down in a normally civilized and quite picturesque creek-form, along whose banks you can dine at outdoor cafes and sample wines at funky little wine bars. Farther into the village of Evergreen you can have a bawdy old time at the Little Bear Saloon where Willie Nelson used to drop in and play a set for free back in the day. If you are having an especially great time there, and you wear a bra, you might be invited at some point in the evening to remove your bra (either modestly pulled out from under your t-shirt or taken off proudly in full view) and sling it up over the rafters where it will live for the remainder of its bra life. You can shop for unique clothing, including a new bra, that you’d never find anywhere else, visit art galleries and eat ice cream at the Baskin Robbins where my son worked after school. Evergreen still has Fourth of July parades down Main Street where the street lamps are festooned with flower pots and America flags. Bikers show up and line their Harleys up against the wooden rail outside the Little Bear exactly where stagecoaches used to tie their horses. The history of Evergreen is fascinating and available in many nicely done coffee table books. We loved it there.
About 20 years ago – maybe longer – the dam was repaired, in spite of skeptical minds, to be capable of withstanding a 100 year flood. This week we are there……as some one said in the news today, “This could be the one that brings us to our knees.”
I just heard this minute that the Evergreen dam is holding and safe, but uncharacteristically angry Bear Creek has taken out half of a parking lot located along its roaring and raging banks, directly across from the Little Bear Saloon. When the water leaves Evergreen it has to race down through Bear Creek Canyon – one of many canyons that pierce the mountains and enabled early settlers to travel west. These canyons are steep-walled and deep. If you would like to read about just one of them, Google the Big Thompson Flood which occurred back on July 31st, 1976, the first year we lived in Evergreen. As the mountain rain water accumulated in a surreal, film visual effects- type event and then picked up speed while careening down from higher elevations, it raced thunderously down the Big T canyon like a liquid freight train monster, widening out in some places and narrowing again at the tight canyon curves where, since it could not be wide, the water had to deepen up, scouring the steep rocky canyon walls of their higher mountain residences along with trees and rocks and mud. This all happened in a flash – thus the term flash flood. Resulting in total devastation.
Last night I experienced one of those reverse phone call warnings coming across on my CELL PHONE! A screeching alarm telling me to head for higher ground. Thank God I am in a community that is perched on a lovely green hill – but the intersection just a mile away from me became an instant lake and the exit ramps from the highway to the street in front of my home were taken out by fast-rising water. They are gone.
Who would have thought this could happen in a city renowned for being 5280′ above sea level? It would seem that no water could accumulate here! In truth, all of our water drains into the South Platte River which runs directly to the Mississippi River and then to sea, where all good water needs to go. But the mud – that is an entirely different story. Like chocolate pudding with debris, it lingers and clogs and traps cars. It sucks things under. We are told to expect a brief respite from the water starting now, until late tomorrow night when it will return, we are told, with several more inches. But one thing of which I am sure – this has not brought us to our knees. Local news pictures are of course all about humans saving humans and people being generous. Animals being rescued and hot meals being cooked. Like others you see all over the world facing adversity, we’ll be fine eventually. The difference is – this is HERE. First time I have ever seen this up close and personal. And now I have new appreciation for all those other people and what they endure. I thought I knew – I thought I could imagine – but I was not even close. Being wet and cold and homeless and thirsty for clean water, and hungry. Worried to the point of being sick about friends and relatives and kids and elderlies and animals. With no answers for days and days. OK I get it now like I never got it before. I am living it now. That’s actually how an epiphany happens.
For fine news coverage of this Biblical flood, go to www.9news.com or search for KUSA Denver