Estes Park, Colo., a tourist-driven resort town that serves as the eastern gateway into Rocky Mountain National Park, is no stranger to flash flooding.
In 1976, a stationary thunderstorm dumped the equivalent of 12 inches of rain in less than four hours, creating a wall of water more than 20 feet high racing down the steep Big Thompson Canyon just east of town. It took the lives of 143 people in the winding 20-mile canyon, which featured many homes and rental cabins along the usually tranquil Big Thompson River. The flood also destroyed nearly 500 structures, 400 cars and washed out much of U.S. Route 34.
Then in 1982, an earthen dam failed on Lawn Lake in nearby Rocky Mountain National Park, sending a 30 million cubic-foot flood of water through the central business district of the town. This flash flood killed three people who were camping in RMNP and caused $31 million in damage to the town.
Last week, it happened again. I have lived in Colorado for most of my life and spent five wonderful years after college living in and working in Estes Park. Never before has anyone described prolonged patterns of rainstorms in the state — which are rare — as being of “biblical proportions.” I heard that term a lot last week, as newsmen, public officials, weathercasters and citizens could find no other appropriate description for the relentless rainfall that lasted for days and devastated not only Estes Park but also several other communities, including Boulder, Longmont, and a sleepy town called Lyons that lies between Boulder and Estes Park.
Each of these cities and towns butt up against mountains and canyons, and the capacity of the rivers and creeks in these canyons were no match for the massive amounts of rainfall that hammered the region day after day. As of Monday morning, six people are presumed dead, more than 1,200 are unaccounted for and approximately 19,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed. Many little mountain towns have been isolated, as nearly all roadways to and from those towns have had portions wash away. It may be years before some portions of the roads can be repaired.
My family will be housing a friend from Estes Park — who recently started to work in Denver — indefinitely. While his house was not destroyed, commuting from Estes to Denver is no longer an option.
I know the town of Estes Park will once again rebuild, as it did after the 1982 flood and a devastating fire that destroyed a significant portion of downtown in 2009. I trust most of the people whose houses were adjacent to one of the rivers have flood insurance.
Still, most of the 19,000 families who have had their homes damaged or destroyed by the floods face significant hardship, as the majority of them don’t have flood insurance. It probably never even occurred to most of them. When they bought their homes, it likely wasn’t required as part of their financing arrangement, as so many of these houses didn’t lie in a traditional flood plain or weren’t mapped in a zone at a high risk for floods.