With tornadoes tearing through cities, killing hundreds, overflowing Midwestern rivers flooding millions of acres, and earthquakes and tsunamis wiping out whole regions of Japan, it’s fair to wonder what natural disaster might strike Colorado Springs.
First, the good news: The Pikes Peak region is one of the safest places to live when it comes to nature’s wrath. The risk of hurricane, tsumami and prolonged flooding on this high, dry plain are zero. Small earthquakes rumble every few years but the chance of a damaging one in the next 150 years is just 0.5 percent. The area’s most recent volcanic eruption was about 30 million years ago. Tornadoes touch down, but the buffering effect of the mountains make them rare and relatively weak.
Sustainlane.com, a sustainable development website, ranked the Springs the seventh-safest city in the country in 2008.
Now the bad news: Local disaster planners say they know what the worst-case scenario will look like — because it happened 76 years ago on Memorial Day. That’s when a flash flood ripped through the region, sweeping away dozens of homes, devouring bridges and power lines, and killing eight.
“That’s the most likely large-scale disaster in the city,” said Bret Waters, manager of Colorado Springs’ Office of Emergency Management. “We don’t have to estimate what kind of damage the water will do. We just have to look at what happened in the past.”
May of 1935 in Colorado Springs, like May of 2011, was unusually cold and wet. Frank Nelson, who lived in a cabin at the top of Cheyenne Cañon, sent a note to The Gazette saying three feet of snow had fallen during the month.
Monument Creek — usually a trickle of about 50 cubic feet per second — was swollen by repeated storms. Reservoirs were full and the ground was saturated.
Residents planned a big parade for Memorial Day, but the night before an eerie fog — the thickest in memory — settled over northern El Paso County, and that morning it started to rain. Only 14 veterans showed up to march in the drizzle.
The sky grew darker through the morning.
“Then it all just came down,” said Waters, who has studied the disaster.
It didn’t just rain. It didn’t just pour. It pounded: 2.34 inches of water fell over downtown in about an hour. Cloudbursts to the north dropped much more. Monument reported hail drifts eight feet deep.
The slurry of water and hail funneled into Monument Creek and barreled toward Colorado Springs. It chewed away banks and tore out trees, churning up millions of tons of mud and logs until, a Gazette reporter standing on the banks said, it was not so much a wall of water as “a flotsam of battering rams.”
By the time the flood reached Monument Valley Park it was a quarter of a mile wide and the normally placid creek was rushing at an estimated 50,000 cubic feet per second.
It “lashed out of its channels,” the reporter wrote, “boiling and tossing its muddy billows from 10 to 15 feet into the air.”
The flood boiled to the top of the six-foot-high stone wall around the Van Briggle pottery, then knocked it down, carrying pottery away in angry waves. A hay barn downstream was torn to sticks. The water hit a carnival pitched on the flats along Colorado Avenue, knocking over the Ferris wheel and carrying away rides. Cars and houses tumbled in the current.
The Rock Island Railroad bridge spanning the creek bent and collapsed. Then the Mesa Road bridge crumbled. Then Colorado Avenue. The reinforced concrete of the Nevada Avenue bridge “snapped like cardboard,” a witness told The Gazette. All but one bridge over the creek were destroyed.
By the time the flood reached the southern end of the city it was a mile wide.
The wall of water inundated a power plant that stood where Martin Drake Power Plant is today, and the city went dark. Gas lines were cut. The Gazette fired up an old steam printing press to print a special edition.
The flood smashed into a grocery store on Colorado Avenue, pinning the clerk for hours with only his head above water.
T. J. Fagan saw the water surge up to his house on West Kiowa Street. When it was 3 feet deep he carried his wife to higher ground, then went back with his son for some belongings.
The current swept him under. Almost 75 feet downstream his son pulled him, bruised and barely conscious, onto a marooned car where they waited two hours to be rescued.
Everywhere along the creek, people were trapped by the rising water.
Fred Philow and his wife retreated to their South Nevada Avenue home’s second story, coaxing three women and neighbors to join them.
They waited hours for rescuers.
Not everyone was so lucky. Just a block away a young couple from Pueblo was forced to climb onto the roof of their car, where they stood for hours, The Gazette said, surrounded by “the black and boiling water.” The woman, a “decided blond,” was dressed all in white. The man wore a sharp black suit.
Houses and cars washed by as thousands of people on the banks watched one rescue attempt after another fail. Slowly the water rose until “it was flowing over the white clad feet of the woman,” The Gazette said. And then the car lurched and went under. The man and woman were found dead days later and miles downstream.
Storms killed dozens across the state that day and injured many more.
When the water subsided, all major roads, railroad tracks and bridges were out in the county, electric lines were down, and hundreds of houses were damaged or destroyed.
It took years for Colorado Springs to repair the damage, and it likely will take as long when it happens again. (Emergency planners say it will happen.)
A similar flood likely would knock out most area bridges and utilities, said Waters. Because the city is bigger, damage would be more widespread and more expensive. City estimates say a similar flood could displace 3,500 people and cost more than $328 million.
In 1935, Manitou Springs was largely spared. A similar flash flood striking Fountain Creek would be much more severe, city planning reports say.
A $276 million backlog of repairs to aging flood control structures awaits funding.
“Don’t count on water, electricity, cell phones, emergency response for at least 72 hours,” said Waters. “The city will essentially be split in half.”
People need to have an emergency kit ready with food, water and other supplies, he said. They should be aware of elderly neighbors and others who might need help during an emergency.
Colorado Springs’ relative safety may give people a false sense of security, Waters said.
“Coloradans think they can sit back and take it easy, and not be prepared. That can be a big mistake.”
Contact the writer: 636-0223