Remembering the 2013 Boulder flood
CIRES Education and Outreach team reflects, works to build community resilience
Ten years ago, when rain clouds rolled over the Flatirons, heavy rains that hit the Boulder and Colorado Front Range communities brought upon floods that caused damage and loss of life. An upper-level cut-off low-pressure system remained for five days, bringing record-breaking monsoon moisture and rainfall between 6 to 18 inches in many areas. The result was catastrophic, with thousands of homes destroyed, lives lost, people displaced, infrastructure damaged, and a staggering $3 billionsin repair costs. 10-years later, we look back on this event's profound impact today.
Looking back with the CIRES Education & Outreach team
Lianna Nixon, education & outreach team member
It was my freshman year at CU Boulder. I had just gotten a handle on my class schedule, learning where all the buildings were on campus, and making new friends. When it started to rain, I didn't think much of it; it was warm that week, so we thought the rain would bring cooler weather. My roommate and I went to a friend's house in Boulder’s Moorhead neighborhood. We were stranded at their home, unable to return to campus because the bike paths around Moorhead were completely flooded. It was scary; some areas of the neighborhood had water up to my thighs and hips. I remember seeing people trying to drive through the water to move their cars but got stuck, so we helped push vehicles out to high-elevated areas to avoid further damage.
FLOOD WATERS FILL A ROAD DURING THE 2013 BOULDER FLOOD. CREDIT: LIANNA NIXON
When we got back to campus, friends of ours who lived in some of the older dorms with basements were making lines and bucketing out water with small dorm-room trash cans. After the flood, some students had to relocate because the water destroyed their rooms. I cannot imagine having all of your possessions utterly destroyed within the first few weeks of starting a new chapter in life. I cannot even imagine what it felt like for community members who lost so much from the flood and still are recovering years later.
Katie Boyd, education & outreach associate, CLEAN program manager, evaluation & educational research
I live in Fort Collins, which experienced less flooding than Boulder in 2013, but the surrounding areas did get a lot of flooding. For example, our city was completely isolated for a couple of days (roads were all flooded, people couldn't get in or out). North of the city, the Poudre River flooded I-25, and the Big Thompson River near Loveland flooded I-25 to the south (Estes Park got a lot of rain). Highway 34, through the Big Thompson Canyon, leading up to Estes from Loveland, was totally washed out in many parts and closed for almost the next year until they could get it fixed enough for travel.
I had a friend who had her wedding on Friday the 13th—the day with the most flooding for us—and only folks who lived in town or were already there could attend because no one else could get into the city from surrounding areas. I went to the Cache la Poudre River near my house, and it was overtopping its bank a bit and flooding up onto the trail that ran along it. It was pretty wild despite Fort Collins getting the least amount of rainfall for the area.
Hilary Peddicord, education lead for NOAA's Science On a Sphere and SOS Explorer
The flood of 2013 was a very wild experience. My partner and I lived in North Boulder in a three-story condo we had purchased in February of that year. My friend, a photographer, lived in our basement and I remember picking her up on Tuesday, September 10th from the Apple Store. The rain was so heavy we were afraid her computer was getting soaked through her backpack while walking half a block to my car. She left the computer on the floor in our basement bedroom for the night and called at 10pm to instruct me to put it on the bed. I later wished I had put her cameras and external hard drives on the bed as well. I walked down in the morning to find a foot of water that looked like chocolate milk. We ended up rebuilding our basement ourselves and were lucky enough to have help hauling carpet and ripping it all apart from the Mudslingers, a local group of our friends who were pitching in to help anyone in need.
Basement flooding in a Boulder home
Now as a resident now of Lyons, I see how devastating it was for the community, sometimes heavy rain causes PTSD for my neighbors. My daughter attended a daycare in a place that was completely destroyed years previously and attended a preschool that sprang up in the aftermath as there was nowhere for community littles to go. As an atmospheric science educator, I took the opportunity to find out as much as I could about what happened and created presentations and activities for teachers to be able to share with their students. I gave mini-workshops at schools on the first and second anniversaries.
My son was born during the flood. I was past my due date, and at first, I began taking herbs to induce labor, but by the time the rain started, the midwife said not to bring about labor because we didn’t know what would happen with the rain.
On the day I went into labor, the rain continued, and we were not sure what roads we would travel on or even if we could get to the Boulder Community Hospital. My husband tracked the agencies reporting road closures as numerous roads were flooded and bridges were washed out. To get to the hospital, we had to call the hospital to find out the most recent route taken by staff who made it in because the routes were continually changing. At one point, both East and West routes were closed to flooding. We even packed bags in case we could not reach the hospital.
When we did make it, I vaguely remember going into a different hospital entrance, as I was focused on contractions, but later found out that the basement and first floor of the hospital had flooded. Many babies were born in the days of the floods, and hospital staff were overworked because people had trouble getting to and from the hospital.
My son is ten years old, and I think about the number of Adverse Childhood Events he’s been through. He was born during the flood, experienced the pandemic, and our family evacuated and survived the Marshall Fire in 2021; our home had significant smoke damage, so we moved completely. He has experienced all these events in his lifetime he had no control over, and it makes me sad that these ten years in his life have caused such adversity for him – and for all of us. Kids are growing up with such different environmental and life circumstances; the more you accumulate, the more it can impact your life negatively. Our children are affected by the world in this way and don’t have any control. I hope we will become more resilient as we continue to face these adverse events.
Building community resilience
Since 2013, Boulder County and neighboring areas of Longmont, Louisville, Erie, Jamestown, Lyons, and Superior have worked to repair the damages from the flood. Now, they prepare for future flooding through infrastructure upgrades and mitigation solutions. Growing populations, urban expansion, increased natural hazards, and weather patterns associated with climate change continue to impact Boulder and the Front Range. Boulder has a high flash flood risk due to its location at the mouth of several canyons, where homes, buildings, and recreation sites can quickly become vulnerable floodplains. This calls into question how Boulder will become more resilient to future floods and environmental hazards.
There are many community members throughout Boulder who have explored ways to find community resiliency in light of environmental hazards. CIRES Education & Outreach believes education and community preparedness are vital to ensuring community resiliency. The Hazard Education, Awareness, and Resilience Task Force (HEART Force) is a collaborative project implemented by CIRES and Western Water Assessment. The program focuses on environmental hazards such as wildlife, floods, and drought, which increasingly affect Colorado communities. HEART Force's Middle and High School Flood units explore the meaning of preparedness, mitigation, and resilience in the context of floods and how to visualize resiliency for their communities. The range of classroom lessons and activities helps students be able to identify patterns of flood history and risk in Colorado and communicate this information to their community.
"We know that severe precipitation events, like the Boulder 2013 flood, are predicted to happen more frequently with climate change,” said Katya Schloesser is a CIRES Education & Outreach curriculum developer and HEART Force program manager. “If our future leaders, currently in middle and high school, engage with resiliency planning by gaining an understanding of ways to reduce the risk of losing property and life to future flooding events, we all win."