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Flooding in Ute Pass kills one, causes massive damage in Manitou Springs

By: DANIEL J. CHAC? and Jakob rodgers The Gazette
August 9, 2013 Updated: August 10, 2013 at 7:37 am
photo - Near Canon and Grand avenues in Colorado Springs.

Photo courtesy of Warren Epstein
Near Canon and Grand avenues in Colorado Springs. Photo courtesy of Warren Epstein 

Violent floodwaters swept through much of Manitou Springs on Friday evening, killing one person and injuring at least three, lifting homes from their foundations, damaging businesses, pushing vehicles off the highway like toys.

The death was announced at 11:15 p.m. by the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, which said the man’s body was found buried in debris on the westbound lanes of U.S. 24. The man, who did not have identification on him, was not in a vehicle.

After the pounding rain stopped and the floodwaters gradually subsided, the streets of Manitou Springs were littered with boulders, trees, mud and other debris.

The rain came down in torrents over the Waldo Canyon burn scar about 6 p.m. as many families sat around the dinner table and commuters were making their way home. The National Weather Service said 1.3 inches or rain fell in about a half hour in Williams Canyon.

The deluge produced a rock slide and a river of black muck on U.S. 24, forcing authorities to close the road between 31st Street in Colorado Springs and Cascade.

"It's just absolute chaos," said a mud-covered Elissa Hokenstad, assistant manager of the Manitou Springs Arcade, who spent the evening with employees mopping mud from the game room floors and pumping water from flooded basements.

"We always have to keep it in the back of our minds, but I didn't think it would happen tonight," she said.

It was the third flood to hit Manitou this year and the fourth flash flood in the area since the devastating June 2012 Waldo Canyon wildfire, which destroyed 347 homes, killed two people and burned more than 18,000 acres, leaving behind a fragile landscape susceptible to flooding.

The muddy waters Friday roared down Williams Canyon and rushed into Fountain Creek, topping the bordering walls and lapping into the city.

As with past storms, Canon Avenue bore the brunt of the floodwaters.

At least seven cars lay either crumpled or damaged on the road outside the Cliff House - some seemingly washed down the road from above. A two-foot by three-foot boulder lay in the middle of the road.

Debris piled several feet high - branches, mud and entire trees - lay against the sides of houses condemned after the July 1 flood at the base of Williams Canyon, along with an industrial-sized Dumpster that appeared to have been brought in for cleanup from past floods. It now lay on its side, against a house with yellow tape surrounding its porch.

As the waters receded, Michael Cercone said he heard a woman crying for help and found her about 100 feet up a hillside near a church, scraped, bruised and apparently having suffered a broken leg.

"She was just very much so happy to see people," Cercone said. "She was very relieved to see people."

During the storm, Cercone pulled out his phone and from his front porch captured video of the floodwaters raging down Canon Avenue.

He saw a pickup truck swept downstream, ultimately ending in the front yard of a house down Canon Avenue. A second car followed suit a few seconds later.

Several hundred feet away, a small yellow house floated on the floodwaters like a bobber - soon breaking apart and sweeping down Canon Avenue. A yellow wall from the house ended up on a sidewalk. The woman with the broken leg had been in that house when the floodwaters hit.

"I never expected like a home to wash down the street, not at all," Cercone said.

In Cascade, bride-to-be Jacinda Kennedy was trapped - and in tears.

She and her family were at Holy Rosary Chapel for a wedding rehearsal when she learned that U.S. 24 was closed. Kennedy was forced to miss her rehearsal dinner in Colorado Springs and pack up her wedding decorations.

"I was hoping that we would get out of there fairly soon, so I just kept positive spirits, and then they told me that possibly I might not get to have my wedding at the church and then I started to get emotional," she said.

Kennedy was holding out hope late Friday of having her wedding in Cascade but said she would move it to Colorado Springs if it came to that.

"We have a Plan B just in case we can't get married at the chapel," she said. "The wedding will still be one, wherever it will be."

Others might not be so lucky on Saturday when daylight reveals the extent of damages.

Manitou Springs firefighters were called to the flood about 5:45 p.m., when two to three feet of water came rushing down Williams Canyon, said Dave Hunting, a fire department spokesman.

"This has been a significant event in Manitou Springs this evening," Hunting said. "This is the kind of event that we've been preparing for over the years when we have floodwaters come down in both directions to hit this community."

In addition to the woman that Cercone found on a hillside, another person was injured in Manitou Springs and the third suffered injurIes on U.S. 24, Hunting said.

At 8 p.m., 15 people were housed at the Historic Community Congregational Church, 103 Pawnee Ave., in Manitou Springs, which was being used as a shelter.

People were being helped off U.S. 24 at dusk, and some people who abandoned their vehicles on the highway were expected to stay at the shelter, Hunting said.

"Manitou Springs is a resilient community," he said. "We will bounce back from this as we already have a couple of times this summer. But public safety is our number one priority right now."

The flood left several inches of mud in the parking lot of the Lovers Lane Apartments, while debris slammed into vehicles parked long the road.

Shortly after the floodwaters receded, a white Subaru lay half in the rushing creek, while a truck 20 feet away lay on its side. Natural gas hissed from a nearby pipe that ruptured. Utilities workers turned off gas to several lines because of leaks.

"This is devastating," said Kodi Pokorny, who lives nearby. "I really hope they have full coverage."

Downstream, the water topped a bridge leading to the Blue Skies Inn, partially submerging a backhoe and then lapping a few hundred feet away at the base of the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce building.

Curt Heimsoth, the chairman of the Manitou Springs Flood Coalition, said he spent five hours before the storm Friday assessing the flood risk of Canon Avenue in preparation for a report to El Paso County officials on the flood mitigation needs in that area.

"We're going to have to reassess everything now," Heimsoth said.

He has lived in Manitou Springs since the late 1970s, and he said this flood has been the worst he's witnessed - far worse than the flash flood of 1999.

"It's going to take the community a long time to get cleaned up and back to normal, if we can," he said.

"When I wake up tomorrow and the sun is out and we can see what's happened, it's even going to strike home even deeper, the impact and the devastation."

Heimsoth said he couldn't even logically grasp the mess until he saw it in daylight.

"It's just sort of surreal the whole experience. So it's a mess, you know, it's just a mess."


Gazette reporter Garrison Wells contributed to this report.


Contact Daniel J. Chacon 476-1623.

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