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September 16, 2013
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Colorado flooding: ‘It could happen here’

EAGLE COUNTY — The widespread flooding that hit the Front Range has prompted some people to wonder if our part of the world could be hit that hard. The short answer is “yes, but it’s unlikely.”

Last week’s flooding was prompted by massive rainfall — as much as 15 inches in areas. This was caused by an unusual combination of moist air from the south being trapped against the Front Range by a high pressure system north and east of the state. That air was wrung out like a sponge when it was trapped against the mountains in what’s known as an “upslope” pattern.

Joe Ramey, a forecaster in the National Weather Service’s Grand Junction office, said a similar weather pattern could develop over the Western Slope. But, he said, it is unlikely — as was last week’s weather on the Front Range.

What’s perhaps more likely is locally heavy rain that leads to flooding or mudslides, something we’ve seen in Middle Creek in Vail two summers ago and Sweetwater in western Eagle County last summer. Sweetwater residents are still repairing damage from that disaster and have been dealing with minor mudslides for the past month.

Rain in even a fairly normal summer like this one can fall quickly. Gypsum Fire Protection District Chief Dave Vroman said Dotsero was hit with about two inches of rain in four hours a few weeks ago. That’s quite heavy rainfall in this area, heavy enough that much of the water runs off before it can be soaked up. That, in turn, causes flooding, which can hit with little or no warning.

“When it comes that fast, there’s no time to sandbag,” Vroman said. “That’s why we do ‘Ready, Set, Go’ — it works for everything.”

Local fire departments and emergency management officials last year started holding “Ready, Set, Go” seminars for residents as a way to help people prepare to leave in a hurry in the event of wildfire. But that advice is applicable for all kinds of emergencies.

“People really need to pre-plan,” Vroman said. “We can’t help with everything.”

And there may be times when help has a hard time getting where it needs to be.

Vail Fire Chief Mark Miller grew up on the Front Range and remembers helping emergency crews after the 1976 flood that devastated the Big Thompson Canyon between Loveland and Estes Park, killing 144 people. Miller was in the area last weekend, again helping rescue crews in the area. Miller said the recent flooding seems “10 times” worse than the 1976 flood, primarily because the flood this year is more widespread.

What if Gore Creek flooded?

The flooding this year has gotten Miller thinking what might happen if Gore Creek suddenly rose 10 feet, or more, beyond its normal flood stage.

“If we got 18 inches of rain, we’d be in sad shape,” Miller said.

Beyond devastating neighborhoods, a flood that size, and the subsequent debris flows, would wreak havoc in Vail Village. It could also split the town in two, he said. Flooding bad enough to demolish bridges could cut off the south side of Gore Creek from the rest of town. If that looked likely, Miller said he’d hustle fire trucks and crews to the south side of the creek to deal with emergencies there.

Much of Vail — indeed, much of the valley — is on what we think of as “high ground,” but even that might not be enough.

Barry Smith, director of the Eagle County Department of Emergency Management, is on the Front Range now, helping evaluate damage from the flood. Smith said he’s seen many homes on hillsides damaged or destroyed by fast-moving water or debris. Those homeowners surely thought they were on high enough ground to be safe.

That’s why Smith said he thinks most homeowners should have some sort of flood insurance, since other homeowner’s insurance policies don’t cover flood damage.

Noel Harris, owner of Wall Street Insurance in Edwards, agreed, to a point. Not everyone needs flood insurance, he said, so many people would be wasting money by buying it.

One of the problems is that insurance issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency only pays if more than one home is damaged by the same flood or mudslide. A lone home on a hillside probably wouldn’t qualify, he said.

There are a lot of other factors to consider before just buying a flood policy, Harris said. All those factors boil down to one rule: Do research with the help of one or more professionals to determine if your home should carry flood insurance protection.

That said, it’s not a bad idea to be ready to hunker down at home for a few days. That means having enough food, water and fuel to get through a “shelter in place” order.

After a few days of working through perhaps the worst flood in state history, Smith said he may need to revaluate even his own emergency plans.

“I’ve got probably 30 days of food on hand,” he said. “I’m starting to wonder if even that’s enough.”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2939 or at smiller@vaildaily.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Sep 17, 2013 12:05PM Published Sep 20, 2013 11:46AM Copyright 2013 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.