Isabel Sanchez was home alone with five kids and her dogs on the night the water started to seep inside that night in September 2013.
It had been raining heavily, and Sanchez had been hearing about parts of Boulder that were starting to flood. About 10 p.m., she began to notice water filtering up through the tiles in the ground-level addition to her home at the Mapleton Mobile Home Park. By 11:30 p.m., she said, she “could not keep up with the water.” Alarms began to sound from the Unity of Boulder Spiritual Center nearby.
Sanchez gathered her kids and their belongings and was getting ready to load them into a van so they could leave and seek higher ground when she began to hear about road closures. U.S. 36 was closed. Nearby Folsom Street, she said, was “like a river.” Goose Creek had become swollen, and debris had started to plug the gates of a ditch not far from the mobile home park. Even roads in Longmont, where Sanchez had a friend who had offered to let her and her family stay there, had flooded.
Sanchez and her family were able to evacuate to a nearby emergency shelter, but she returned home to find the lower level of her home badly damaged. Everything in her bedroom was wet. A tree had broken some windows in her greenhouse. There was so much damage that eventually, the home had to be replaced.
“It was pretty scary and devastating,” she said. “And then seeing the damage to my community and my neighbors, too — that was really disheartening, because there’s a lot of seniors in this community.”
Mapleton was one of a handful of Boulder communities that was ravaged by severe flooding in 2013. Record-breaking rainfall from Sept. 9-16, 2013, which brought a whopping 17.15 inches of rain to Boulder, overwhelming the city’s sewer and storm drainage systems. Floodwaters overtopped major roadways, including U.S. 36, and damaged others. Although the flood didn’t claim any lives in Boulder, it destroyed homes and businesses and upended life for many Boulderites.
A decade later, the city has largely rebuilt and recovered from the flood, but the memories remain, and many who have lived here a long time see a changed city now — one that’s been sobered by its experiences but has also become more resilient and better prepared for future disasters.
Boulder sustained about $20 million in infrastructure damage from the flood that took years to rebuild. Overall, the disaster damaged $27 million in city property and an additional $300 million in private property. 8,000 phone numbers received evacuation orders to seek higher ground, and about 14% of households in Boulder sustained flood damage.
For as destructive as the flood was in Boulder, though, officials at the time noted that it “could have been much worse,” and the city fared better than other communities in Boulder County. The city did not lose any bridges. Crucially, it also never lost water service, although it came dangerously close to doing so, and the water remained safe to drink.
Yet there were pockets of Boulder that faced severe impacts, including Mapleton and other mobile home communities such as the Ponderosa Mobile Home Park, which the city purchased in 2017 in part so that it could replace old infrastructure and help reduce the future risk to the community. Ponderosa residents will soon have a chance to purchase homes from a new modular housing factory being built in Boulder, and the city is helping subsidize the cost for some residents, in part to replace old and flood-damaged mobile homes.
At the Frasier Retirement Community, floodwater burst into the buildings and cut off firefighter access to the campus. Vehicles were totaled, and elderly residents were forced to evacuate, with some being displaced for months after the disaster. The flood caused $11 million in damage at Frasier that cost $16 million to rebuild. Frasier has since rebuilt and expanded, but it was still the costliest known flood rebuilding project in Boulder.
A major mitigation project is planned for South Boulder Creek, where waters overflowed and spilled over U.S. 36 during the 2013 flood, but although it was approved by the City Council in 2015, it relied on a controversial land annexation agreement between the city and CU Boulder. The land needed for the mitigation project, a 308-acre site at U.S. 36 and Table Mesa Drive, is owned by CU and has become known as CU South. The city annexed CU South into the city limits in September 2021. Once the project is finished, it’s expected to mitigate flood risks for about 2,300 residents and 260 structures. Boulder’s Open Space Board of Trustees is slated to see an updated design for the project in late fall.
Flood mitigation projects have also taken on a new urgency since the flood. A number of mitigation projects have been completed, but more are also in the works for Upper Goose Creek, Twomile Canyon Creek and other waterways. Joe Taddeucci, director of utilities for Boulder, said the city completed a flood utility master plan that identified nearly 40 projects that will be implemented over the next three decades.
Preparing for the next disaster
Boulder is known to have the highest flash flood risk in Colorado. The city has had a flood utility since the 1970s and has spent tens of millions of dollars on flood mitigation projects over the past 25 years. Even so, before the 2013 flood, many in Boulder and Boulder County did not foresee a flood of that magnitude happening here.
“In that flood, we had every drainage flooding simultaneously. So it kind of changed the size and scale of how flooding can occur in our county,” said Mike Chard, director of the Boulder Office of Disaster Management. “I don’t think there were a lot people thinking that that could happen.”
All 16 of Boulder’s major drainageways flooded, but according to Boulder Deputy City Manager Chris Meschuk, the flood had vastly differing impacts on different parts of Boulder.
“I think it changed the understanding of personal risks for a lot of folks. The flood was really unique here in Boulder in that it was really disparate in impact,” said Meschuk. “There were over 6,000 houses flooded, but it was scattered throughout the city. And so you could be on your street, and it just felt like a lot of rain, but everything felt normal. And one street over, everybody was literally pulling their basements out into their front yard because their basements filled with water.”
Since that time, personal preparedness has become a huge area of emphasis, Meschuk said. The city has worked to educate residents on their personal flood risks and what they can do to mitigate those risks.
Having lived through emergencies before — a tornado had left her former home in North Carolina severely damaged — Sanchez was ready to act when her home started flooding and was able to evacuate with her family, but after living through the flood and other, more recent disasters, she encountered other people who were less prepared than she was. Eventually, she was moved to create her own disaster preparedness training program. Although her program, Community-Led Preparedness for Climate Emergencies, is very new, she is training 20 community leaders to become trainers who will lead preparedness classes in different locations. The classes will be offered in English and Spanish.
Sanchez said there are seniors, school-age kids, people in mobile home parks, undocumented immigrants and others who are afraid to seek shelter and don’t know where to go for help in an emergency.
“There’s no trust, and people are just afraid. They’re afraid … they don’t have a lot and they’re afraid that they’ll lose this stuff,” she said. “We want to kind of give that trust and that feeling that they have some information and they have choices.”
Indeed, Meschuk said, one of the most enduring impacts from the flood is a lesson about the strength that lies in community and “neighbors helping neighbors.”
“How can we make sure that in those times of significant disaster, that people can help each other and that they are aware of their neighbors and what their neighbor’s needs are, whether that be for wildfire evacuation or for floods?” Meschuk asked.
Despite the devastation wrought by the 2013 flood, Boulder’s story — and the story of many people in Boulder like Sanchez — have become stories of resilience and hope.
Sanchez’s home was so badly damaged by the flood it had to be completely rebuilt. She and her family spent eight months living in a hotel during that time, and the work was not complete until five years after the flood.
But if you visited Sanchez’s lot today, you wouldn’t guess it had flooded 10 years earlier. She grows peaches, apples and plums on trees in her yard and gives them away to neighbors, and she has turned her home into a permaculture site.
“As strong as these climate emergencies are, we as humans and nature are so resilient, to yield and create newness again,” Sanchez said. “I have learned so much in these floods and these emergencies that really have impacted my life, my children’s lives, my neighbor’s lives, my community.”
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 Daily Camera 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 Boulder; memories of those who lost their lives; and timeline and flood facts.
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