On September 9, 2013, a cold front stalled over Colorado, mixing with monsoonal humid air and offering the ingredients for a perfect storm. From September 9th through 12th, a record breaking 17 inches of rain dropped on Northern Colorado and the Front Range.
The following pictures were taken while on a casual drive up Big Thompson Canyon almost six months after the catastrophe. Estes Park was completely cut-off from its lower terrain neighboring cities of Loveland and Fort Collins. Many of the residents up and down the canyon had been air lifted out.
The Big Thompson River, in most parts, is approximately five to seven feet deep through its namesake canyon. The river runs along the bottom of the canyon’s ravine and normally stays within its trenched borders. However, the flood waters rose beyond the modest banks to heights very evident in the photo shown on the left.
The rapidly building current of rushing water collected debris that formed a destructive wall of trees, large boulders and other objects that were swept away with the river’s increasing momentum.
Depending on whether the house or cabin was on a bend, river’s edge or a higher cliff-like shelf could determine if the structure survived, was damaged or completely washed away. Many cabins like the one shown in the photo above are missing some and/or most of their foundations. The cabin to the upper-left will probably be torn down and rebuilt higher and farther back.
The brown cabin shown right would be considered a total loss. When driving by we could see the contents hanging in limbo waiting to be rescued from the collapsed floor. Some cabins lost not only their cliff side stability, but also their riverfront property to alternating flow patterns. Hopefully, the people who lived or stayed in these cabins made it out before the flood waters took out their front entry ways. Then there were cabins such as those pictured right that had nothing left but their foundations. Mother nature shows no mercy in selecting which structure makes it.
There is much devastation up and down the Big Thompson Canyon. Six months had passed since those three days of record breaking downpours traumatically changed the canyon’s landscape. The evidence is still obvious with stacks of debris crowding the two-lane road’s washed out shoulders. The clean up will not take as long as rejuvenating the damaging effects the storm’s impact had on the canyon’s delicate ecosystem.
The canyon’s restoration is in full swing and progress is coming along well. Spring run-off in the Colorado Rockies is very important for the eastern plains.
The construction company is operating 24/7. They are rebuilding the river’s altered banks with river rock and over-sized boulders that were washed down steam. They are also rebuilding culverts, bridges and securing the road’s shoulders and embankments.
The photo shown left was once a park that sat next to the Big Thompson. It use to be home to a power plant before it was partially washed away by the August 1976 flood. The old plant’s remaining foundation and the shells of the two generators became a make-shift dedicated memorial. This time they were completely washed out and the park is now nothing more than an eroded piece of land. A local landmark will only be a memory to the canyon’s residents and frequent visitors.
The canyon’s narrows are located just after the Dam Store and the Larimer County water pipeline that spans over Highway 34. The pipeline was elevated after the 1976 historic flood. The 2013 flood waters were so fierce that they exposed the elevated roadway’s buried footings and jeopardized the highway’s structure.
The roadway around the Dam Store, a local stop for souvenirs, was completely washed out. Luckily the overhead water pipe survived the 20-plus feet of surging water. Can’t say the same for the rest of the upriver communities and Highway 34’s infrastructure.
Traveling up Big Thompson Canyon from Loveland, we got a bird’s eye view of the devastation. More than 250 people were airlifted out of the canyon to safety. It was closed off for months until road crews could make it passable.
Unofficially, six people are missing from west of Loveland to the mountain community of Drake. But with all this in mind, the canyon still holds a bittersweet beauty that will give sight seers a look at one of nature’s most rugged terrains.
Author: Anthony Scopel
Photographer: Anthony & Maureen Scopel
Editor: Sheri Thompson