When people think of Colorado and natural disasters, usually, these days, they’re thinking of the wildfires. I can’t blame them–I think about those wildfires a lot, too. Wildfires are hardly the only natural hazard that Colorado faces, though. Between the state’s mountainous terrain and its dry, often drought-like climate, flash flooding is a serious concern. I grew up being told to be mindful of when it rains upstream, to avoid going down to the river in steep canyons, to never camp anywhere but on high ground. I heard the weather radio’s routine weekly report every Wednesday morning. Bus stop benches and road-side ad boards would have slogans such as “Turn Around, Don’t Drown” linked to images of a car stopped in front of water pooling on a street, and the walking trail alongside the river that runs through my hometown, Fort Collins, had flood water markers at regular intervals–reminders of one of the worst floods in Fort Collins’ history. My point in listing all of these experiences is that the people of Fort Collins, Colorado are no strangers to flash floods, and floods in general. I grew up surrounded by the active efforts of the city and community to ensure flash flood preparedness, and so I was curious as to how we had come to this point. The Spring Creek Flood of 1997 is an event that every Fort Collins kid is at least aware of, and most can point to the memorial in Creekside Park (see Figure 1) that commemorates the five people who died in the flooding, but most of the people who lived through the flood don’t like to recall it, so the specific details of the event are mostly unknown to us. With this background, I decided that the case study project was the perfect opportunity to do a deep-dive into the local history that has clearly had an impact on my community’s culture,
Figure 1: Jack Kreutzer’s “Human Spirit” statue stands in Creekside Park to commemorate the 1997 Spring Creek Flood.
On July 27th, 1997, after weeks of little to no precipitation, rain began to fall on Fort Collins, CO and the surrounding region. The rain continued on and off all day, thoroughly saturating the ground. When it began raining in earnest on the evening of July 28th, eventually peaking at a rate of 5 inches of precipitation in an hour, the freshly fallen water had nowhere to go and instead began to pool. By the time the rains stopped, 10-14.5 inches of water had fallen on Fort Collins within 31 hours–nearly equal to the city’s annual rainfall. The consequential flooding covered the campus of Colorado State University, bringing water levels up to 10 feet deep in some places. 39 buildings on campus were damaged, nearly half a million books were lost when the library flooded and one of its walls caved in, and the doors to the student center shattered. Between the flooding on campus and elsewhere in the city, emergency dispatch was receiving an average of one call every 16 seconds. In a nearby section of town, shortly after the student center doors shattered, two trailer parks were inundated with water. A 19-foot railroad berm that had previously been holding back the contents of a 50-acre water detention basin broke, flooding the trailer parks just on the other side of the tracks with a 8,250 cfs torrent. This torrent derailed four train cars, triggered a natural gas explosion (see FIgure 2), and killed four people. An additional person was killed in the flooding nearby, bringing the sum of deaths to five. In total, over 200 homes were completely destroyed, both trailer parks were a total loss, and 1,500 homes and businesses were damaged, amounting to over $250 million in property damage citywide. Footage of the flooding is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YprNb9g8C-k&t=4s.
Figure 2: Fires resulting from the natural gas explosion burn while the trailer park floods. A firefighter wades through the water. Source: https://www.kunc.org/environment/2017-07-27/20-years-later-fort-collins-better-prepared-for-flash-floods.
Despite the losses, the Fort Collins community bounced back with remarkable speed. Thanks to the help of dedicated volunteers, summer classes at CSU were back up and running within two days. A community of volunteers likewise helped to clean up the city proper and shelter those displaced by the flood. The city received over $100 million in disaster relief. Within two years, the city had completely recovered, though the trailer parks were never rebuilt.
In the wake of the Spring Creek Flood of 1997, Fort Collins invested substantial resources into flood preparation, mitigation, and adaptation. They installed a series of rain and water level gages along the various streams flowing through the city, resulting in a flood early warning system composed of one of the densest networks of gages in an urban setting in the United States, and by 2015, two-thirds of the city’s 100-year floodplain had been converted to parks and natural areas that double as water detention ponds. The city also implemented a regulation that requires that there be no floatable, unsecured materials in the floodplain. The benefits of this regulation became clear during the 50-year flood event that took place in Fort Collins in 2013, when the flood came and went without inflicting any structural damage to buildings. After years of mitigations and adaptations inspired by the 1997 flood, FEMA listed Fort Collins as a Class 2 city in 2021 in their Community Rating System, giving citizens 40% off their insurance. Only seven cities in the country hold that Class 2 rank, and only one has a Class 1 rank. In short, after the 1997 Spring Creek Flood, Fort Collins invested enough in flood preparedness to become one of the 8 best prepared cities in the country.
Today, Fort Collins continues to remember the flood through city-commissioned art memorials located in Creekside Park, where the trailer parks once stood and where four people died. Clearly these memorials are helping to keep the memory of the flood and the reasons we prepare alive, because without them, I never would have written this case study.
“Raindrops” stands in Creekside Park to commemorate the 1997 Spring Creek Flood. The lowest three water lines indicate, bottom to top, a 10-year flood, a 50-year flood, and a 100-year flood. The topmost marker shows the water level during the Spring Creek Flood of 1997. Source: Author’s father, 2022.