A sudden rainstorm sent a muddy wall of water up to 20 feet high crashing through neighborhoods in the middle of the night, washing away cars, mobile homes and anything else in its path. At least five people were dead, 40 injured and 10 others missing.
“There was no time for warning,” said police Lt. Brad Hurst.
More than 8 inches of rain fell in the Fort Collins area Monday night and collected behind a 15-foot-high railroad bed until the water finally broke loose in a huge wave.
The flood turned normally quiet Spring Creek into a raging river of caramel-colored water. Televisions, refrigerators, furniture and even a toilet bowl floated through town.
“It came and came and came, and I thought, ‘Oh man, I’ve got to get out with what I have with me and help my neighbors,”’ said Suzetta Thompson, who was at home with her husband, Rob. Their mobile home was destroyed. “I grabbed my bathrobe, and now that’s all I have.”
Two trailer parks were especially hard-hit, but the flooding caused hardship all over this city of 108,000 an hour north of Denver. Side streets were swamped with dirty, brownish water, forcing some shops to close.
City Manager John Fishbach estimated damage in the millions. Gov. Roy Romer, who had once lived in the neighborhood, flew over the flood area in a National Guard helicopter.
“I know that creek well,” Romer said. “It just catches your breath when you see that amount of damage.”
As a steady drizzle fell, rescuers searched for the missing. They went through 90 trailers one by one, prying them open and spray-painting on them what was found. Many said “Clear.” But one was marked: “Live Cat.” A stench filled the air as the rescuers - including divers and dogs - worked.
Fires burned at daybreak from broken gas mains.
The Colorado State University campus was heavily damaged. More than 4 feet of water poured through the student center, and water was still rushing from the building hours later. Textbooks, pins from the bowling alley and bicycles were scattered in the muck outside.
The university suspended classes, and 3,500 teenagers attending an international conference spent the night in the athletic arena after power was cut to the dormitories.
In the aftermath of the heavy rains, as streets flooded, police from several communities lined streets to prevent loitering and looting.
By midday Tuesday, power was back to most residents. Phone problems also dogged the city through the day, with some main lines submerged. More rain was expected, and a flood watch was in effect.
“It looks moist for quite a while,” said Bob Koopmeiners, a forecaster with the National Weather Service.
The search was suspended at nightfall and was scheduled to resume today. Poudre Fire Authority Battalion Chief Warren Jones said the priority overnight was keeping looters and the curious out of the flooded area.
Jones also said he doubted any survivors were left in the wreckage of the mobile home park. He said victims whose homes were among the least damaged would be allowed to return today to salvage belongings.
Spring Creek, which is lined with trees and a bike path, winds through several neighborhoods on its way from the Rocky Mountain foothills to the Poudre River. It is usually about 5 feet wide, and no one could recall previous flooding there.
The ground had been saturated after a day and a half of rain. Runoff built up behind the railroad bed, which acted as a dam. The water then burst over the top and tore through the tracks, unleashing a huge wave of water into the trailer parks downstream. Debris then clogged a bridge farther downstream and the water backed up into the already flooded neighborhoods.
Five women died in the flood, said police spokeswoman Rita Davis. Three women were found trapped between a trailer park and a bridge about 100 yards away. A fourth was found two miles downstream. A fifth was later found buried in debris near the trailer park. Davis said up to 10 people were missing.
Forty people were treated at Poudre Valley Hospital; four people in their 60s and 70s were listed in fair or good condition, while a six-month-old girl was in fair condition with pneumonia.
The flash flood hit just days before the anniversary of the Big Thompson River flood 20 miles to the southwest. More than 10 inches of rain fell July 31, 1976, when a storm sat over the area for hours much like one did Monday night at Fort Collins. The death toll in 1976 rose to 145.
A brave girl jumps from the rocks on the west side of Tubbs Hill as her two friends watch. (Don Sausser/Facebook photo)
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