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Manitou clears debris, looks skyward

By: matt steiner
July 3, 2013 Updated: July 3, 2013 at 2:19 pm
Caption +
Sandy Disney carries a painting down from the second floor of her friend and neighbors house that was destroyed in the flash flood in Manitou Springs Monday. The home, on Canon Avenue under Highway 24, was one of three homes destroyed in the flood that washed down the mountains after more than a half inch of rain fell on the Waldo Canyon burn scar. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette

Ken Cisek finished his daily computer work Monday afternoon, took a few minutes to grab a snack and turned on the television to relax.

Cisek, who rents the first house before Canon Avenue enters Williams Canyon in Manitou Springs, said he could hear the thunderstorm outside but didn't think anything of it. Suddenly, the storm ended.

"The rain stopped, and it was quiet," Cisek said. "The next thing I knew, there was this loud, ungodly noise."

The next several minutes left him trapped inside the small house as a wall of water, mud and debris surged past while he looked out the window.

The flash flood that poured out of the canyon about 4:40 p.m. Monday came after a brief storm that dumped a little more than a half-inch of rain on the Waldo Canyon burn scar in less than 30 minutes.

Manitou Springs and other Pikes Peak area officials have been expecting flash floods ever since the fire, which burned more than 18,000 acres in the mountains west of Colorado Springs in June 2012. The blaze left two dead and destroyed 347 homes.

Manitou Springs Police Chief Joe Ribeiro said the storm and flood happened just as expected, except for a lack of warning.

"The notice just wasn't there," Ribeiro said. "You turn around. The sky turns black. And the bottom falls out."

When asked whether Manitou Springs officials tried to use the town's emergency siren, which was upgraded early in 2013, Ribeiro said he did attempt to sound the alert, but that it didn't go off.

Ribeiro said the siren issue was the biggest hiccup Monday, and troubleshooting what happened will be one of the top priorities before another storm hits the burn scar.

Cisek stood just yards from large rocks, downed trees and 3-foot-high piles of mud that lined Canon Avenue on Tuesday. The man held his hand even with his head saying, "The water was about this high."

He shook and glanced around in what he said was still a state of shock "from going through the whole experience." Cisek couldn't guess how long the surge lasted, but he said it wasn't long.

Cisek said he saw a large tree smash into his landlord's Cadillac Escalade, pushing it through a wall and into the lower level of the house next door. He said only about 3 or 4 inches of mud and water pushed under the door to his rental, which faces away from the canyon.

"I should've been out of here," he said. "But I had no idea it was coming."

Ribeiro and Manitou Springs Mayor Marc Snyder said at a Tuesday morning news conference that crews from the region, including El Paso County, Colorado Springs, Fort Carson, the American Red Cross and the U.S. Forest Service, were in the area less than 18 hours after the flash flood assessing the damage.

More than a dozen homes were damaged and at least three were total losses, Ribeiro said. Four businesses and 11 vehicles also were damaged during the flood, but there were no injuries.

Manitou Springs workers and volunteers from the Red Cross and the Coalition for the Upper South Platte were cleaning up Tuesday, equipped with power washers, shovels and wheel barrows.

Ribeiro said the goal was to make sure no culverts were blocked in case another thunderstorm sends water rushing into the town of about 5,000 people in the coming days.

The higher section of Canon Avenue was littered with debris, but Ribeiro said he was surprised that there was "so little."

"I expected to see more and larger debris," he said.

Property manager Lise Hunt, who manages three rentals near Narrows Road and Canon Avenue, pointed to mud marks almost 4 feet high on the exterior of one of the houses that Bad Bob Properties owns. She said the mud and debris was also that high in the house when she arrived Tuesday morning.

"The water just went right through it," Hunt said as she waited to find out if the home would be condemned.

Ryan Horn, 30, and his wife, Kim Horn, didn't get out of their house that sits across Narrows Road from Hunt's rental unit.

Ryan Horn told a similar story to Cisek's, saying the sun was shining and then the noise came. By the time he and his wife grabbed their pets and prepacked suitcases, it was too late. The flood waters had quickly blocked Canon Avenue. Luckily for them, Ryan Horn said, their house sits slightly higher than most in the area and suffered no damage.

Ryan Horn said he and his wife had attended flood preparedness meetings.

"I thought we were prepared," he said, staring at a pile of mud and tree branches in front of his home. "But it was a shock how quick it went from zero to this."

While Cisek and the Horns weren't able to leave before the flood became dangerous, Ribeiro and Snyder each commended Manitou Springs residents for being aware and ready to evacuate. They said 95 percent of the town wasn't directly affected by Monday's flood.

Ribeiro said gawkers presented the biggest issue during Monday's flood.

"We had a number of curiosity seekers who were actually moving into the flash flood," Ribeiro said.

Curt Heimsoth spent Tuesday piling up more sandbags in front of his home in the lower section of Canon Avenue.

Heimsoth said the city of Manitou Springs isn't ready.

Heimsoth said he was in Manitou Springs for a flood in 1999 that dropped more than 12 inches of rain on the town over four days.

"It was a wake-up call for this community," Heimsoth said of Monday's flood. "We need to move much quicker."

Snyder said the town has been working with a pre-burn scar emergency response plan and has written a new, post-Waldo Canyon fire plan "in light of the new dynamics." That new plan, revised in March, has not yet been approved by the City Council.

According to Snyder, an email from Ribeiro went through City Hall on Monday morning revisiting the need to move forward and get the updated response plan in place.

"And then lo and behold, a few short hours later, we were right in the thick of it," Snyder said. "We're already doing an after-incident assessment."

The pre-burn response plan was passed by the City Council in 2008.

Snyder echoed Heimsoth's take on the matter, saying Monday's flash flood increased the need to "get it done sooner rather than later."

"We already recognized it as a priority," Snyder said. "This will certainly make sure we keep it on the front burner."

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