Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Thousands around Colorado Springs must be wary of the big black wave of mud

By Ryan Handy Updated: July 12, 2013 at 4:01 pm 0

When John Schroyer's beat-up Subaru Outback was caught in a swell of black water and sent coursing down U.S. 24 on Wednesday, he was on the edge of panic. His voice, recorded on his video camera, shook.

Schroyer, a Gazette videographer, is deadpan, sarcastic - a no-nonsense kind of guy who, even while flash flood waters threatened to toss him into a swirling vortex, still kept the video camera rolling. At the same time, he was trying to steer and kept pumping the brakes - all pure survival instinct. Really, he was terrified.

"Yeah I was trying," Schroyer said of his efforts to keep the car on course. "I don't know why, because stupid instinct? Somehow. As if that would have helped. It was just adrenaline."

In his video, which by Thursday was aired on local TV stations, CNN and Good Morning America, Schroyer's mud-slathered 1996 Outback rode a black wave and crashed against signs and rocks like a bumper car. He cussed, hyperventilated, and came to rest 200 feet later, an island amid ash-laden water.

He was shocked. The Gazette newsroom was shocked.

But, experts say, no one should be surprised the flood struck where it did.

Schroyer's car was caught in a spot that was targeted a month ago as a vulnerable zone for flood damage on the highway, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation. With the help of hydrologists, the department isolated a few of the Waldo Canyon burn scar's most vulnerable spots along U.S. 24 - one, just west of Manitou Springs near mile marker 296, was where Schroyer's car washed off the westbound lane and was swept down the hill. The department's Waldo Canyon Mitigation Project started a month ago with mile marker 296, expanding culverts, and will continue in August at mile marker 288, near the El Paso-Teller County line, said spokesman Bob Wilson.

Wednesday's storm may have produced cinematic effects, but in the grand scheme of monsoonal flows, it "wasn't even that high on the spectrum," said National Weather Service meteorologist Kathy Torgerson.

"That was just probably a little taste of more to come," Torgerson said.

Colorado is now in its monsoon season, when the sun quickly warms the higher elevations and moisture gathers into towering thunderheads that can burst and pass through an area within minutes. These thunder cells might float over the Front Range every day for the next month, and all it takes is a half-inch of rain for a flood to pour down some portion of the Waldo Canyon fire burn scar.

The hills west of Colorado Springs are in prime thunderstorm territory, "which makes it hard for the Waldo (scar) to escape," Torgerson said.

Wednesday's storm, which lasted only minutes, dumped over an inch in Waldo Canyon and .52 inches of rain in upper Williams Canyon, two of the higher danger zones on the burn scar, Torgerson said on Thursday. Some other danger spots are Wellington Gulch, in the central-south area of the burn scar. Then there are Glen Eyrie and Sand Gulch, by Chipita Park, both of which got minimal amounts of rain on Wednesday.

All those points are mostly along U.S. 24, or else dump into Colorado Springs, and that's no coincidence, Torgerson said.

"Wherever the fire burned the hottest is where the soils end up being the most hydrophobic," she said. Soils on those steep, rugged landscapes have been drained of all moisture; rain glides off them as it would through a bathroom sink, smooth and fast.

Flooding has long been anticipated by the state and county, and by mid-July, floods might even feel like a weekly occurrence.

In fact, cloudy skies likely will linger over El Paso County through the weekend, according to the National Weather Service. Temperatures are expected to reach the lower 90s consistently through the weekend. There's a 30 percent chance of thunderstorms Friday afternoon, and a 20 percent chance of thunderstorms is forecast for Saturday and Sunday, said Makoto Moore, a meteorologist with the weather service.

To lessen the risks of flood, the Department of Transportation last year got $5 million approved for the Waldo Canyon Mitigation Project, and has been working to improve culverts in that fragile zone along U.S. 24. After the Waldo Canyon fire, the U.S. Geological Survey placed rain gauges throughout the scar to help meteorologists monitor rainfall and predict flash-flooding.

Downslope, the Manitou Springs Fire Department has worked thunderstorm-watch into its daily routine, said spokesman Dave Hunting. When the storm clouds gather, the firefighters move their trucks out of the station on Manitou Avenue. They're trying not to get trapped in a flood zone, Hunting said.

But what happens if the weather this summer necessitates a daily move? Worse yet, can they do it for the 10 years it will take for the burn scar's flood danger to subside?

"Hopefully that won't be the case, but we can activate very, very quickly," Hunting said. "Right now we are doing the best we can."

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