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The Flood in Ft. Collins

oh yeah? wait'll you see what happens when Boulder gets its very own wall of water......sooner than later

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, July 30, 1997.

I have to admit it, the floods in Fort Collins over the last few nights have provided those of us with long memories a certain amount of smug satisfaction. First off, of all the Front Range cities that were due, according to the experts, for The Big One, I don’t recall Ft. Collins ever elbowing its way to the front of anyone’s list, which is a nice touch to those of us who question the word expert whenever it appears in print. Second, of course, is the somewhat sick “I’m glad it wasn’t us” giggle syndrome that is part of every disaster viewed by neighbors. And third is the somewhat opposite, no less perverse, and altogether satisfying knowledge that the city of Boulder has been nudged even closer to the precipice, and that next time it will be us.

To give a brief and somewhat misleading summation of Boulder and its flood prospects, we should recall that in the 1890’s Boulder, then a ridiculously small town, briefly became a smaller but moving lake perhaps a half mile wide. This was before all the construction in the century since that can be referred to as more toys in the tub, except that these toys mostly float not and will raise the water level that much more plus will play a key role in damming up the water flow in the worst possible places and diverting water into areas utterly unexpected and unprepared.

Recall the University of Northern Colorado Campus? A twenty foot wall of water, folks. In the middle of the night. Oh, and Ft. Collins is not as close to a major, deep, and narrow canyon like the one we have with Boulder Creek. Think overloaded shotgun.

To continue, Boulder built all its municipal buildings not just in the flood plain or on the flood way but directly on the creek most likely to turn ugly. The police, emergency communications, jail, library, city hall - everything sat within fifteen feet of disaster. In the last decade, efforts have been made to move stuff away, except they also enlarged the library so that it now sits closely on both sides of the creek. Worse, there are plans to put the new city hall in a civic center park only a few feet further from the creek than the old ones sit. We take great satisfaction in noting that these things are out of the flood plain or nearly so, but common sense dictates that nobody has a clue how the flood will act except for the certainty that the terms floodway and flood plain hold no meaning to it. If the experts are wrong, as unnamed knowledge always is in the event, we cannot arrest errant floodwaters. We cannot ban them from the state, or make them pay restitution. We cannot make them give back drowned victims. Our only sure thing is to arrange our affairs so that no public buildings or capital is in the neighborhood of a predictable and surely inevitable disaster. We have not done this, and this is the worst slam against our city government in the last quarter century. We have done almost the bare minimum to prepare for our flood.

To listen to flood discussion in Boulder is to hear nothing but a series of slapped foreheads as experts suddenly discover what is and what is not at risk, as flood plains change their barriers seemingly without cause, and only coincidentally to the benefit of some development or other. People heave huge sighs of relief as they discover their house is beyond the predicted flood way by four feet, and congratulate their experts on finally figuring it all out.

Memo: I hope someone, not an expert or with ties to the developers, has kept track over the years to what the Ft. Collins experts predicted for their long predicted flood. I hope they still have the colored maps and public displays of what the flood would do. I further hope that someone will take the time to overlay exactly what the flood did, and have the locations of the found bodies marked in red ink. I predict that there will be no concordance worthy of the term. Further yet, I hope that when the experts try to piece together their vocational future that they are not allowed to rewrite history by blandly stating curious half-truths and outright lies to put their status in the best possible light. I hope someone kept track. I have in Boulder. I have press clippings going back fifteen years. When we get our flood, I want credit where credit is due for the people who posed as experts. I want them to bravely face into the cameras for that photo op.

For those of us who have excoriated authorities for building anything in harm’s sure and eventual way, there is an element of pillow fluffing to watch the inevitable horror. This is heightened by the knowledge that a twenty foot wall of water gouging through the University of Northern Colorado, taking a toll of lives and property not yet settled, most surely did not appear on anyone’s list of scenarios for the predicted flood, and that this unexpected twist to the long predicted nightmare might serve as an illustrative example of the surprises Boulder will receive.

And even more perverse is the wish that the Boulder flood happen soon, because it will only be much worse the longer we wait.