It has been two years since the catastrophic Colorado floods of 2013. The outstanding visitation and tax revenue numbers from this summer suggest that most guests could not guess that the recovery is ongoing.
We’ve come a long way in those two years, but much work remains…
The impact in places like downtown Estes Park and Lyons will be substantial, as flood insurance premiums could skyrocket for some businesses.
In addition, Larimer County Commissioner Tom Donnelly announced to Glen Haven residents that $2 million in federal money is being allocated for restoration of bridges and roads in Larimer County.
Under existing federal regulations, money could not be allocated to privately owned roads or bridges that exist in much of rural Larimer County. The presence of second homes in many of these areas was also a barrier to obtaining any federal assistance. Cooperation among our Congressional delegation and Larimer County officials was necessary to obtain an exception to federal rules, which were not designed with our region in mind.
Cooperation has been another key to getting us back on track. No one person or organization can take all the credit. For example, the Fish Creek Road restoration requires cooperation among the town, county, Upper Thompson Sanitation District and Estes Valley Recreation and Park District. The United Way created a unique fund that delivered over $1 million in grants to local businesses for flood recovery. Mountain Strong for Nonprofits evolved from community members who banded together to help their neighbors. Crossroads Ministries received and distributed substantial assistance.
The Community Foundation of Northern Colorado provided grant monies to a host of local recovery efforts, including a grant to Estes Park EDC and the Town of Estes Park for a flood recovery coordinator. Through that program, Estes Park EDC assisted over 50 businesses in successfully obtaining $1.9 million in Recover Colorado business grants.
Our dedicated staffing and partnership with Larimer SBDC greatly benefited local businesses. As of this summer, over 60 percent of the statewide Recover Colorado grants had come to Estes Park, Glen Haven, Drake and southwest Larimer County.
For Estes Park EDC, assisting local businesses is always a top priority, but this was just the first step. The recent completion of the NEO Fiber Consulting plan for competitive broadband is a major step toward addressing both the cost and speed of local Internet services. Assuming the plan goes forward, it will greatly benefit both our residents and guests, our existing businesses and businesses to come.
Finding long-term resources for resiliency is another key. Two weeks ago, we received good news. After receiving an application from Larimer County, the Colorado Economic Development Commission accepted Southwest Larimer County as an Enterprise Zone. Thus provides local businesses with the opportunity to obtain a number of different tax credits designed to expand and support your business. We are an Enterprise Zone because census data revealed that Estes Park is lagging the state in population growth.
In 2013, we spoke about the 28 percent decline in 35 to 44 year old residents that occurred between the 2000 and 2010 Decennial Censuses. The 2012 Census data estimated that we have lost 46 percent of our 35 to 44 year olds since 2010. The loss of working age families can be attributed to less workforce housing availability and fewer year-round job opportunities compared to Front Range communities.
The flood has exacerbated such concerns, as demonstrated by the large number of job ads that continued to appear in July and August. The size of this population decline threatens funding for our schools, due to long-term declines in enrollment.
Later this fall, Avalanche Consulting will meet with the Town Board to present a regional economic development strategy for the Estes Park region. There will also be public meetings to discuss the plan and its implementation. The plan combines the results of extensive community meetings and outreach earlier this year with the experience of a national consulting firm.
This summer has been a record year for tax revenues. Despite our successes, the recovery is ongoing. Long-term resiliency against future events is an important goal. With leadership and collaboration, we ensure we remain a vibrant, multi-generational community in the decades to come.
The storm that upended the lives of thousands of Front Range residents almost two years ago was nearly unprecedented for the area, so much so that it largely confounded the best efforts of those charged with forecasting its scope and impact.
But the lessons learned from the 2013 event could go a long way toward ensuring that should a similar storm strike this area — and in a changing global climate, it could — the forecasting community would be better prepared for it.
Those are key findings from “The Great Colorado Flood of 2013,” a paper accepted for publication soon by the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. It is one of the most comprehensive analyses to date on a memorable storm that may only have the September 1938 flood as close precedent in the past century for the Boulder area.
The 71-page paper features no fewer than 26 contributing authors, representing the University of Colorado, Colorado State University, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and CU’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences…
Colorado behaving like the tropics
The record-breaking dimensions of the 2013 storm were born of a confluence of climatological factors, including a significant tropical influence flowing into a charged atmosphere flush with water vapor, over a landscape that was already well saturated.
Recapping the way the system had set up, the paper states: “The large-scale atmospheric pattern that supported persistent heavy rainfall in northern Colorado during 10-16 September 2013 consisted of a blocking ridge over the Canadian Rockies and a slow-moving, cutoff, upper-level cyclonic circulation to its south over the western U.S. The blocking anticyclone assisted in keeping the western-U.S. cutoff circulation in place for several days, and to the east and southeast of this circulation, moist air was transported northward and westward toward the Front Range in Colorado.”
That’s far different from the usual variety of flood-prone events for which most local forecasting models are geared — such as a slow-moving thunderstorm that might camp out over a localized river basin, like that which triggered the tragic Big Thompson flood of 1976.
And just as the tuning of a musical instrument can be adjusted for the music it is expected to play, the forecasting tools of the National Weather Service are calibrated for conditions they expect to see — not the outlier that invaded Colorado two years ago.
“Weather forecasting models are tuned to observe the weather in the entire United States year-round, and they are tuned to typical weather, not atypical weather,” Friedrich said.
“Then, because the models didn’t forecast the rain correctly, the radars didn’t measure the rain correctly, and that had trickle-down so the hydrological forecast was basically lagging, due to the incorrect input data. And the reason the radars did not observe it correctly was the nature of the storm. It was very tropical.”
Weather blogger Bob Henson stated in an email, “This paper reiterates how challenging it is to accurately predict and measure heavy rain and flooding. This was a Colorado storm that behaved like a tropical downpour, from the microphysics within the clouds to the phenomenal rainfall they produced.”
Meteorologist Matt Kelsch, a co-author on the report, said atmospheric models are always evolving, using past storms as guidance.
“When a storm occurs that is so far removed from the historic experience, our forecasts, both computer and human, struggle,” Kelsch said. “The modeled atmosphere leading up to the second week of September 2013 was strongly suggesting an unusually wet period — but not 12 to 20 inches.”
As bad as things were for the 24 Colorado counties socked by more than $2 billion in damage, Henson said it could have been worse.
“We are lucky to have far better modeling and observing technology at hand than we had in 1976, when the Big Thompson flood took almost everyone by surprise and killed more than 100 people,” he said. “Neither humans nor models fully anticipated the scope and power of the 2013 disaster, but we knew heavy rains could affect a wide area, and we had much better tools for responding quickly and saving lives when the threat materialized.”
The paper concludes by offering the hope that new research weather forecast models such as NOAA’s High Resolution Rapid Refresh model could improve precipitation forecasts, and that new generations of spatially continuous hydrological models could produce better information on timing and location of floods — presuming that more accurate rainfall estimates and forecasts are available to feed into those models.
The storm was such that it stretched historical superlatives in the moment, and some endure. Most notably, the paper supports the contention that in some pockets in a corridor stretching from Boulder northwesterly toward the St. Vrain, Little Thompson and southern half of the Big Thompson watersheds, rain fell during one 24-hour period at a clip qualifying as a 1,000-year-rain — meaning that in any given year there is a 1-in-1,000 chance of it occurring.
“We don’t have the data to say otherwise,” Gochis said. “It’s all a fit to what you have seen before. Otherwise, you’re just kind of extrapolating.”
Gochis added, “If we had 1,000 years of data, we could have a lot more confidence in saying that. …
“I don’t really like that (1,000-year) term. The flood was definitely unprecedented in its scale — not just in local amounts, but in its widespread extent.”
‘Do we know what actually fell?’
Many might be surprised to know that even now, two years later, it still isn’t known exactly how much rain came down.
“Do we know what actually fell? No, but we certainly have a very good estimate, much better than what we would have had even 15 years ago,” Kelsch said. “The struggle is in low-population mountainous areas. Low-population areas have fewer rain-gauge reports, and mountainous areas have less radar-based measurement of what is happening between the cloud and the ground. This was most apparent in parts of northwestern Boulder and western Larimer counties.”
Friedrich noted in an interview last week that a question that remains prominent in her mind is “whether this is an outlier event and whether these types of events might occur more often. Is this a response to climate change? Is this something we might experience in the near future?
While noting that there is not yet enough data to draw a solid conclusion, she referred to a paper published in June by NCAR distinguished senior scientist Kevin Trenberth. The Trenberth paper, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, didn’t assert that climate change caused the 2013 flood, but that it likely enhanced its severity.
The 2013 storm was extraordinary, Trenberth said, as demonstrated by the fact that records were “not just broken but smashed.”
“And yet we are seeing more and more of these sorts of things around the U.S. and around the world,” he said. “They are hard to connect because every one is different; the atmosphere has infinite variety, and the weather never repeats. But climate change is altering the odds.”
Currently, hurricanes in the east Pacific and a record-breaking El Niño boosting sea-surface temperatures over large areas are examples of the Earth’s natural variability which, coupled with climate change, “puts us outside the previous experience,” Trenberth said.
“There are many phenomena involved in all these different events, but the environment in which they occur has changed to make the extremes more extreme — the rainfalls heavier, and the droughts hotter and drier and with wildfire a consequence,” he said.
Whatever the future might hold, Gochis said the fact that “Boulder, itself, didn’t receive a lot of catastrophic damage” suggests much of its floodplain planning and flood strategizing has paid dividends — and should continue to, in the face of future events.
Gochis was less sanguine about other areas of concern, mentioning as an example the restoration of foothills roadways.
“Transportation corridors were put back where they were,” Gochis said. “I think we’re still vulnerable there. But to make them more flood resilient would take a lot of money.”