The Forgotten Flood – 19k Homeless in Colorado

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In a recent conversation with Colorado resident and Firestorm CEO Harry Rhulen, we were discussing the speed of news today, and its impact on awareness of and response to major disasters.

“The news is out there the moment it happens,” said Harry, “and gone just as quickly.”

People may be suffering still, companies may be unable to function or carry on day-to-day business, but given the speed and need for “new”, a local disaster may quickly become old news.

For the 19,000 families made homeless by the 1000-year rain and flood event in Colorado, reality is all too clear.

Five days of relentless rain caused severe runoff from the mountains into the foothills and plains of Colorado’s eastern half. According to Dr. Jeff Masters from Weather Underground (blog), the amount of moisture in the atmosphere, or “precipitable water”, over Denver as of 6 a.m. MDT Sep. 12 reached record values for the month of September (1.33 inches). Records date to 1948.

“We’re not talking about flooded basements – entire homes were submerged,” said Mr. Rhulen.

Video Credit – An aerial view of floodwaters filling the streets of downtown Longmont, Colo., north of Boulder, in YouTube video by Payton H. Peterson.

The floods started with a wall of moist air from the Gulf of Mexico that got trapped up against the mountains, dumping almost a year’s worth of rain in four days. As the overflow coursed through mountain ravines and canyons, it was like “running a fire hydrant through a garden hose”. Manhole covers shot through the air riding sewer-channeled geysers like waves. Streams became rivers of trees, boulders, and an avalanche of concrete.

FloodThere are thousands of uprooted trees, dumped in a jumble by flooded streams.

For more than four days, water and mud and rock plunged 2,000 feet from the peaks into foothill towns like Boulder and Longmont. In fact, the pulse of floodwater traveled 400 miles along rivers, all the way to Nebraska.

“One-hundred miles of roads are gone,” said Rhulen. “Attempts are being made to funnel traffic onto streets that were simply never designed to handle the current level of traffic. Even if employees can get to a work location – traveling over a now 2-hour commute from one that may have been no more than 15 minutes – there is no business or work to go to.”

“The option to work remotely is not feasible for many – underground cables have washed away, and for many there is no power,” Harry continued, “Lyons and Greeley are examples of those hardest hit.”

Thirty highway bridges were destroyed and 40 more damaged, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation. Several earthen dams and dozens of roads were washed away over an enormous area, larger than the state of Delaware.

Mud and Debris Concerns

Flood waters can contain any number of contaminants that are accumulated upstream. Special precaution should be taken in the handling of flood debris. An excellent resource from the Center for Disease Control can be found at

Given the above, many homes and yards in the flood ravaged areas  have been inundated with mud. Given that this debris is likely mixed with other contaminants, official Colorado sources advise removing the debris from a site as soon as possible.

  • Avoid direct contact with mud and soils by wearing protective clothing boots, and gloves.
  • Spread out the soil to allow the sun to dry it and kill pathogens.
  • Do NOT sweep, dump, or wash mud and sand down the sidewalk or driveway out into the city storm water catch basins. Taking this action will clog catch basins for neighbors downstream and require city maintenance crews to remove debris.
  • Mud can be left on the property, however if it is suspected to be contaminated residents should follow guidance from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. 
  • Do not pile mud and silt in a manner that blocks gutters, sidewalks or fire hydrants, creating a potential hazard and blocking drainage. Flood-related sandbags and other contaminated debris should also go to the landfill.

Worries about Mold and Mildew

ColoradofloodingFrom the City of Boulder – Helpful information

View the City of Boulder Mold Information & Resources document.

According to FEMA, mildew and mold will develop within 24-48 hours of water exposure If your home has water damage due to: flooding; sewage back-up from flooding in the area; plumbing or roof leaks;  damp basement or crawl space; or overflows from sinks or bathtub.

• Failure to remove wet drywall is a real harbinger for potential mold issues.

• It will continue to grow until steps are taken to eliminate the source of moisture, and effectively deal with the mold problem. This is why it is important to act quickly. An important resource for steps in recovering from mold and mildew can be found at

• The first step is to remove the damp elements from your house: carpeting, carpet padding, furniture, damp boxes, and anything that became wet and damp from the flooding. The next step is to assess the mold or mildew.

• There are also home test kits to test for mold and mildew available at hardware stores, however those can take up to 48 hours for results. If the area impacted is greater than 100 square feet, you will need to hire a professional contractor. The city’s building inspectors do not assess the presence of mold or mildew.

• There are several flood restoration companies who specialize in mold/mildew mitigation and can help you know the proper steps to recovery. You can locate a potential contractor by viewing the list of licensed contractors on the city’s Hiring a Contractor Web page.

• Landlords, property owners and tenants can view a short video segment with answers to questions about mold.

Wastewater Concerns

The city of Boulder has an excellent Wastewater document here:

E. coli: Samples collected in 29 locations in eight rivers in the flood zone show high levels of E. coli in the Boulder Creek and Big Thompson River watershed, the state health department said Tuesday.

The testing also showed high levels of E. coli in locations in the South Platte Basin all the way to the Nebraska line

The samples were collected on Sept. 26, more than two weeks after flooding began. The areas will be resampled in the next few weeks.  Five public drinking water systems remain on boil or bottled water advisories: Jamestown, Lyons, Mountain Meadow Water Supply, Lower Narrows Campground and Sylvan Dale Ranch.

James W. Hagadorn, Ph.D., a scientist at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and resident of Greeley, Colorado has written an articulate article for the Greeley Tribune that examines how the 1000-year rain event, 100-year flood, and natural and man-made environmental changes combined to intensify storm impacts.

Now, more than ever before, the concept of “SoLoMo” – Social, Local, Mobile – may come in to play to identify those in need of assistance; while residents may be unable to access resources via a computer, they may have the ability to view lifesaving information via mobile devices and text messaging. Local community resiliency is critically important; forging local connections and understanding how to become your own first responder are not simply wise actions – they are life-saving activities.


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