After Colorado floods, state will rebuild, but should it 'redo'?
The Colorado floods are leading to a massive rebuilding effort, but with winter closing in, the question is whether the state can wait to rebuild better and smarter, or whether it must simply move fast.
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Weather experts are calling the rainfall and timing of the recent storm a “thousand-year storm.” The flooding, on the other hand, was more in line with a 100- or even 50-year flood, depending on the spot. But as extreme weather events occur with more frequency around the globe, some geologists say the accuracy of relying on past data to predict future events is in doubt.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Weather extremes 2013
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“If this has a 0.1 percent chance of happening, one could say I’m going to take my chances, it’s very unlikely this is going to happen again even in the next 100 years,” says Mr. Gooseff. “But I’m starting to wonder if … we’re moving into this new regimen, where the next 100 years won’t look like the last 100 years, and we can’t rely on old records.”
Gooseff says that while there’s been a lot of focus on speed of rebuilding, he’d like to see more attention and discussion about doing it wisely. East of the mountains, for instance, towns like Evans and Sterling also flooded badly, not with flash floods coming down canyons but just with a huge overflow of water. Trailer parks in some places were almost completely destroyed, and people who had little to begin with lost nearly everything. Resettling some of those parks in the same spot may not be the wisest move, says Gooseff.
Boulder, the epicenter of much of the rainfall, actually had relatively little damage compared with some surrounding communities, like Lyons and Longmont – which many attribute to the stringent flood planning the town had in place.
In recent years, bridges across Boulder Creek were made higher and stronger. Bike paths were strategically situated to prevent some development right along the creek, and to serve as an outlet for flood waters. The town put in place a more stringent mapping system than was required, put in place a good warning system and storm water management program, and went above the minimum federal standards for flood planning.
The result: While hundreds of homes and businesses in Boulder were damaged or destroyed, the city didn’t lose a single bridge, its water remained safe to drink throughout the flooding, and no deaths occurred in the city of Boulder itself.
“Boulder has done a lot of good things” on flood planning, “above and beyond the call of duty,” says Clancy Philipsborn, a retired disaster recovery consultant from Boulder.
But he and others say tough decisions are ahead for many communities, especially ones like tiny Jamestown, in the foothills northwest of Boulder, and Lyons, a small town at the bottom of the foothills where the St. Vrain River emerges from canyons.
Both towns were largely wiped out, and the rivers completely rerouted. Do they rebuild as they were before? Do they keep the new path of the river or try to put it back where it was? Are there some places that simply aren’t a good site for structures, or for roads? If roads are rebuilt in those spots, should they be designed to simply wash away again?
“Every decision is tough,” says Mr. Philipsborn, who would like to see planning rather than speed take priority. “This is the exact time when regulations are needed,” he says. “If you waive those rules, you open yourself up to seeing repetitive damage in the future.”
The aftermath of disasters can be a time when people are willing to pay attention to hazard experts that they ignore at other times.
When the Lawn Lake Dam failed in 1982, flooding the mountain town of Estes Park (which was flooded again this month), the town used it as an opportunity to brush the dust off an urban renewal plan for the town’s rebuilding. There was federal money available, and a chance to start from scratch with some of the planning – including reducing the number of bridges, most of which had been washed away.
“They said, we can think forward, do the things which we’d thought about but didn’t have political clout or money for until we had the flood,” says Eve Gruntfest, a retired geography professor from the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs whose research has focused on flash flood warnings since the 1976 Big Thompson flood.
But sometimes even the best planning fails.
One of the roads that was badly hit by the flood was US Highway 34, which connects Loveland and Estes Park through the Big Thompson Canyon. The road was rebuilt after the deadly 1976 Big Thompson flood – still the deadliest flood in Colorado, claiming nearly 150 lives – supposedly to withstand a future flood. But according to the Colorado Department of Transportation, 85 percent of the highway was again destroyed when the Big Thompson flooded this time.
“Seeing the narrows – I almost didn’t believe it,” says Ms. Gruntfest. “We didn’t think in our lifetime we would see it again.”