Saturday, 2 Mar 2024

2013 flood: 10 years later, Longmont ‘far more resilient’

On the morning of Sept. 12, 2013, Dale Rademacher departed Vance Brand Airport on a helicopter ride that he remembers as if it were yesterday.

Record rainfall was about to generate flooding in Longmont, and Rademacher, who was the city’s director of Public Works and Natural Resources at the time, had a bird’s-eye view of it all alongside City Manager Harold Dominguez and pilot Doug Lyle.

The three first flew north, along Airport Road, and could see that the water was still largely contained within the St. Vrain River’s main channel.

However, after briefly heading west toward Lyons, Rademacher and Dominguez got a closer look at the debris-filled water that was barreling Longmont’s way and about to pour into subdivisions such as the Greens, Champion Greens and the Valley.

Rademacher recalls Dominguez radioing into the Emergency Operations Center, from the air, to call for evacuations and being initially told by officials on the ground that they didn’t need to worry about those areas because they were outside of the floodplain.

Dominguez, who wasn’t looking at a map of the floodplain but instead watching the situation unfold from the sky, ordered the evacuation anyway.

“They were able to get everybody out of harm’s way, and (Longmont) had no loss of life,” Rademacher said. “But, it was those kinds of decisions, and actions, that really made that happen.”

‘Let the river go where the river wants to go’

Since 2013, the city has made considerable progress in repairing and replacing infrastructure along the St. Vrain Creek as part of the Resilient St. Vrain Project.

After the flood, officials worked on rehabilitation efforts downstream and farther east and incorporated engineering techniques that protected the waterway’s natural environment.

“Let the river go where the river wants to go,” Rademacher said. “We had the ability to do that because we didn’t have a bunch of businesses and homes and everything out there that we needed to protect.”

From County Line Road downstream to Colo. 119 — within Longmont’s open space properties in Weld County — Rademacher said the plan was to “let Mother Nature do its thing.”

“It’s beautiful out there,” Rademacher said. “You go out there now … it is a testament to the ability of nature to regenerate and be better.”

To the west, the Heron Lake Relief Channel, which was a cooperative effort between Boulder County, Longmont and the Golden Land Company, was built in order to capture any flows that may spill out of the St. Vrain River and then redirect them back into the main channel.

Even within more urbanized areas of the city, Rademacher said the intent was to always be as environmentally sensitive as possible when repairing or rebuilding the area’s infrastructure.

“In other words, we’re not just going to go build another L.A. River and put a big concrete channel down the St. Vrain,” Rademacher said.

Building bridges

The city has already rebuilt the Main Street bridge, the South Pratt Parkway bridge and the Sunset Street bridge, which was in partnership with Boulder County. It will replace the Boston Avenue bridge next.

“We’re waiting,” Eric Wallace, Left Hand Brewing Company founder and co-owner, said concerning the start of the Boston Avenue bridge project.

After all, the craft beer company resides just footsteps away from the piece of infrastructure that runs over the St. Vrain.

“There’s only a couple ways in here,” Wallace said.

The extent of the flood damage to Wallace’s business, which sits on what he calls “a little island,” was predominantly to its exterior.

“We lost a lot of beer because we were out of power for days,” Wallace said.

Not long after the flood, Wallace and his team sponsored Oktoberfest in hopes of bringing the community together for a good time and a good cause as proceeds from the event benefited those who were impacted by the disaster.

“Longmont needed an Oktoberfest after the flood,” Wallace said.

A fence enclosing the brewery’s patio has the company’s signature logo incorporated into it. The large red hand has a horizontal line running through it to illustrate where the high water mark reached during the 2013 flood. Black lettering on the hand reads “The mighty St. Vrain spared our brewery. Others were not so lucky.”

Four years after the flood, the Longmont City Council voted to get rid of the city’s siren system, which was installed in the early ’90s.

The decision had nothing to do with the flood but instead was in response to ongoing malfunctions and the cost of replacing the system amounting to roughly half a million dollars. Intended to warn residents of tornadoes, Longmont’s siren system was not activated during the 2013 flood.

“Sirens, generally, are for alerting people outdoors that there’s a danger,” Jeff Satur, Longmont police chief, said. “When your house is facing flooding doing a siren could have the reverse effect. … People going indoors when we actually want them to leave the house.”

Today the city has several ways to effectively communicate with residents in an emergency, including through BOCO Alert and Wireless Emergency Alert or WEA.

BOCO Alert sends out emergency reverse notifications to landlines, cell phones, emails and even faxes. Residents can sign up for BOCO Alert by going to longmontcolorado.gov and searching “BOCO Alert.”

WEA alerts residents to dangerous weather and life-threatening situations through their cell phones and other mobile devices. The system has the ability to target emergency alerts to specific areas too.

“We have much better technology now that we could isolate homes along the river corridor and stuff like that,” Satur said concerning sending evacuation notices.

The notifications could also contain information such as the best routes for people to take, and not take, when leaving their homes on such short notice.

Satur, who was a Longmont police commander at the time of the flood, recalled the importance of disseminating accurate and timely information, including videos from the air, to residents about the situation on the ground.

“Get above it; get video out there so that people can see whether their property’s safe or not,” Satur said.

‘The next emergency’

Once the Resilient St. Vrain Project is completed, more than 800 acres of property and more than 500 buildings will have been removed from the floodplain throughout the city.

“In a perfect world, Mr. Optimist here, I would say within three to four years we could … achieve that initial, primary big goal of … freeing up a lot of those properties and people from the floodplain,” Rademacher said.

When the 2013 flood struck, Longmont’s population was just over 90,000, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Today, more than 100,000 people call the city home.

From building literal bridges to cultivating new lines of communication with its residents, Longmont has continued to make itself stronger since the most devastating flood event in the city’s history.

“We’re far more resilient now than we were in 2013, both from an infrastructure (perspective) but also the social side of things,” Rademacher said. “The city has developed much stronger relationships with the residents and we’ve developed the staff competencies and capabilities to respond to the next emergency that hits us.”

The flood: 10 years later

Ten years ago this month, parts of Boulder County received a year’s worth of rain in seven days. Steady showers, with interspersed torrential downpours, produced saturated ground and, ultimately, a deluge unlike any that had been seen in a generation.

In the coming days, the Times-Call will look back at a week that transformed the Front Range, and at how the flood of 2013 reshaped communities and changed the course of lives.

Today: How the flood changed Longmont; memories of those who lost their lives; and timeline and flood facts.

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