Flood: catastrophe, then compassion

For Boulder County and much of the Front Range and adjacent urban corridor, the closing days of summer brought a rain of terror.

Longmont was effectively cut in half by the St. Vrain River, with no way to travel between its north and south sections. Downtown Boulder was threatened. All direct routes into the mountains from the Boulder Valley were not only closed but in many cases destroyed. Entire high-country communities were nearly washed away in a weekend.

All those nightmares came true in the Great Flood of 2013. The effects spread from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, but Boulder County was hardest hit. Thousands of people were evacuated, nearly 300 homes were destroyed and hundreds more were damaged.

And yet, through the resilience of its people, the responsiveness of its representatives at all levels of government and the unprecedented generosity of its business and nonprofit communities, Colorado is landing on its feet.

The prospect of a quick recovery was anything but certain when the clouds finally parted Sept. 17 after several days of seemingly incessant deluge. Confronted with rain amounts that often exceeded the area’s annual yearly precipitation total, weather forecasters talked of a “1,000-year event” and “uncharted territory.” It was nearly impossible to tell how much water was pouring down the rivers, isolating whole communities as they cut new channels and knocked out measurement equipment.

Many parts of Boulder itself were imperiled, but the economic blows were felt hardest in Longmont and Lyons.

Much of Longmont’s light industrial base lies near the St. Vrain River, which flooded many buildings and tore up huge sections of streets and railroad tracks.

Lyons, gateway to prime mountain tourism country, was left cut off, swamped and powerless just as the annual pilgrimage into the hills to view fall foliage was about to begin. Through the sounds of the driving rain, residents of Longmont heard the constant hum of National Guard helicopters as they evacuated residents from Lyons.

Once the rain stopped, the staggering costs of damage to businesses, homes and infrastructure began to be tallied. But the engine of recovery cranked up as well.

Boulder County and its cities opened disaster-recovery centers, as did the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration. The SBA offered ways to help businesses get back on their feet, and by the end of October had approved more than $33 million in loans in Boulder County alone, including almost $29.4 million to residents.

Private fundraising efforts quickly sprang into action as well. The Community Foundation Serving Boulder County was active everywhere, including forming a partnership to raise money to rebuild the shattered mountain community of Jamestown.

Oskar Blues Brewing Co., which had been born in Lyons, established a 501(c)3 “Can’d Aid Foundation” which grew out of its initial flood-relief fund. Scores of other businesses and nonprofits offered all manner of aid and fundraising events.

By year’s end, the Colorado Department of Transportation had reopened mountain roads to at least serviceable condition. The signs of September’s disaster still are easy to spot and the bills still are coming due. But the scope of the calamity – and the amazing, heartening and rapid response – will long be remembered.

Next story – 2. DigitalGlobe to move HQ from Longmont

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