The Colorado mountain landscape is beautiful, but it can also be deadly.
Steep mountains and narrow canyons can pose a threat during heavy rain. Water can quickly accumulate in the canyon, and the high walls prevent the water from spreading out causing it to rise fast and travel with great force. A large, fast-moving wall of water has the potential to turn into a dangerous flash flood.
One of the worst natural disasters in Colorado's history was the result of a flash flood. It was the Big Thompson River Flood of 1976.
The Big Thompson River originates in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). The river flows from RMNP into Lake Estes in Estes Park and down through the 25-mile-long Big Thompson Canyon until eventually joining the South Platte River south of Greeley, Colorado.
On the evening of July 31st, 1976, heavy rain (up to 12 inches) fell in about four hours in the upper section of Big Thompson Canyon. A deadly wall of water reaching 20 feet high at times raced down the steep and narrow ravine, killing 144 people, some of whom were never found.
Big Thompson Canyon is a scenic spot with many small communities and mountain cabins. On the night of the disastrous flood, Larimer County officials estimated there were about 2,500 to 3,500 people in the canyon, many of whom were camping along the river.
Visitors and residents were caught off guard by the flood, as the storm appeared mild, and there was little rain in the lower part of the canyon. The floodwaters rose quickly, and people were swept away by the fast-moving water.
In addition to the tragic loss of life, the flash flood destroyed homes, businesses, and roads, making rescue efforts difficult. It was one of the deadliest flash floods in the history of the United States, and it was a wake-up call to state and federal agencies to improve the way they predict, prepare, and respond to such events.
Federal officials investigated the tragedy, and a Natural Disaster Survey Report was submitted in November 1976 by the U.S. Department of Commerce. The report outlined specific recommendations for improving the flood warning system, enhancing emergency management, and updating zoning laws in the state to prevent future disasters.
The Big Thompson River Flood is a tragic event in Colorado history that led to many necessary changes in flood management.
There is a beautiful memorial to the victims next to the Big Thompson Canyon Fire Station, one mile east of Drake Road on U.S. Highway 34.
They are gone but never forgotten.
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