Colorado Flood: A Billion-Dollar Disaster?

Jon Erdman
Published: September 14, 2013

Water rushes through a neighborhood in Lyons, Colo., Friday Sept. 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

With roads and bridges destroyed and still more than a hundred people still unaccounted for, it will take months to assess the damage from the massive flash flood event in northern Colorado. 

(RECAP:  News RoundupWhy the Flood Happened)

"I don't think anybody imagined it would cover such a large area and last so long," said Dr. Russ Schumacher, Assistant Professor in Colorado State University's Department of Atmospheric Science.

Parts of at least 18 different cities and towns along the Front Range and Foothills of northern Colorado were flooded during the Sep. 2013 flood event. This includes parts of the cities of Boulder, Aurora, east Denver, Longmont, Loveland, Greeley, and Ft. Collins.

Given that, don't be surprised to see the total damage figure from this event exceeding $1 billion, once damage to homes, roads, bridges, other infrastructure and agricultural losses is estimated.

Are Billion-Dollar Floods Unusual?

Colorado has had a long history of costly, destructive floods. However, none has racked up a billion-dollar price tag (not corrected for inflation), according to the National Center for Atmospheric Research's Weather and Climate Impact Assessment Program. 

According to that analysis, the costliest Colorado flood occurred in mid-June 1965, during which a five-day soaking sent creeks and rivers roaring in the Foothills and eastern Plains.

A wall of water said to be up to 15 feet high thundered down the South Platte River washing out bridges, inundating homes, and swamping two-thirds of the industrial area of Denver. This flood wave continued downstream into Nebraska. The cities of Castle Rock and Sedalia were among the many cities flooded. Total damage was estimated at $540 million.  If that flood happened today, damage would be well over $2 billion.

Some other destructive, but more localized Colorado flash flood events include the July 1997 Ft. Collins flood ($169 million) and the tragic 1976 Big Thompson Canyon flood (at least $35.5 million). 

NOAA's National Climatic Data Center has kept track of billion-dollar weather disasters in the U.S. since 1980.

In 32 years of records, there have been 144 such weather disasters. Only 16 of those have been due to flooding, and only four of those flooding events occurred in the Rockies or West Coast.

Neglecting the contribution of snowmelt to the Missouri River flooding of spring/summer 2011, the last Western U.S. billion-dollar flood disaster was the late Dec. 1996 - Jan. 1997 flooding in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada and Montana. 

We will see in the months ahead whether this northern Colorado flood's cost places it in this rarified list.



MORE:  Caught on Camera...Trapped by a Flood

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