May 042005
Authors: James Baetke

It was a dark night on July 28, 1997, when the Spring Creek swelled and released its rushing waters into Fort Collins, swallowing parts of the CSU campus and overtaking part of the Lory Student Center.

Since the flood of '97, the city has been gathering funds and support to help prevent such a natural disaster from happening again. In March, Fort Collins announced it was the first Colorado city to receive a $2.7 million grant for stormwater improvement to be used in the Spring Creek Stormwater Drainage Basin – which is a roughly $6.3 million effort made up of four projects.

The grant came from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Pre-Disaster Mitigation program. The grant will financially assist the city in flood-prevention projects and will also keep utility costs down for paying customers.

"The grant is among the first in the nation to fund construction projects through the FEMA Pre-Disaster Mitigation program," said Ken Crawford, mitigation program specialist for FEMA region 8. "The city of Fort Collins has received the only grant in Colorado so far."

This newest grant money was well received by the Poudre Fire Authority's Jason Mantas, who is a public education and informational specialist. Mantas said the fire authority had no involvement in dealing with the grant, but it is excited to see it will help with flood prevention since he and other rescue personnel experienced the natural disaster firsthand.

Fort Collins will provide the remaining $3.6 million to complete the four flood-prevention projects:

* Expanding stormwater detention ponds in the area near Taft Hill and Drake roads.

* Expanding detention ponds in Rolland Moore Park.

* Shoring up the railroad embankment south of Prospect Road.

* Constructing a detention pond near the railroad crossing at Timberline and Prospect roads.

Grabbing national media attention, the '97 flood consumed CSU's Morgan Library, damaging about 500,000 books. The library was in the final stages of a multi-million dollar renovation, so some the library's books were in the basement. The Lory Student Center was also flooded with water, destroying much of what was in the lower level, including several bowling lanes.

Michael Smith, Fort Collins Utilities general manager, said March's FEMA grant will help complete stormwater projects more quickly with less cost to customers.

Design is expected to be complete by October and construction should begin by the end of the year with a decided final date as end of 2006, Smith said.

According to an analysis report produced by the Colorado Climate Center, in conjunction with CSU's atmospheric science department, the first leg of the storm began with heavy rain that dropped in the late afternoon of July 27, 1997. This first onslaught of rain soaked Fort Collins and later set the city up for a devastating flood.

On the afternoon of July 28, heavy rains erupted over Larimer County and other parts of Colorado. The analysis shows that worried climatologists and meteorologists tried to pinpoint where the next flash flood will spur and how imminent a severe flood may be.

From 8:30 to10 p.m. that day, "Extremely heavy rain, of a magnitude rarely experienced in Northern Colorado, was localized over an area of a few square miles centered not far from the corner of Drake Road and Overland Trail in extreme southwestern Fort Collins," states the analysis report. During that 90-minute time period, approximately 5 inches of rain fell.

This extreme rainfall, falling on already soaked ground, sent incredible volumes of water west to east across Fort Collins, initiating the flood of '97, the analysis said.

Five people died in the 1997 flood and the rainfall that accumulated over a two-day period set records for the largest one-day, three-hour and six-hour precipitation totals at a CSU measuring gage, even though it was not located at the center of the storm, according to the city's Web site,

A freight train was also toppled during the flood, which corresponds with projects designed to protect railroad tracks that charge past CSU, Old Town Fort Collins and the city's outlying limits.

The city's Web site states that after the flood, Fort Collins applied for FEMA money. Through a $250,000 grant, the city developed and installed a comprehensive Flood Warning System. Originally, the system included 14 stream and precipitation gauges, enhanced weather information, public-notification tools such as the 530 AM radio station, enhanced cable television override systems, and an auto telephone-dialing system.

In 2000, the system was significantly expanded using another $60,000 FEMA grant and allocations from the Fort Collins Utilities' stormwater budget.

"This grant from the federal emergency management agency will allow the city of Fort Collins to continue moving forward with our community stormwater plans," said Darin Atteberry, city manager of Fort Collins. "We are grateful to have received the grant."

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