Big Thompson flood of ’76: Missed it by 12 hours

Looking upstream into The Narrows during the flood

Of local interest was today’s memorial service for the victims of Colorado’s 1976 Big Thompson flood. A freakish thunderstorm stalled over Estes Park, my favorite vacation spot, and sent a 20-foot wall of water roaring down the Big Thompson Canyon, killing 145 people.

The flash flood, later classified as a 10,000-year event, also destroyed 400 cars, 418 houses and 152 businesses. Damage topped more than $40 million, and the entire highway through the canyon had to be rebuilt.

I was in Estes the day of the flood and drove through the canyon that morning on my way out of the mountains. The first warning went out about 8:30 p.m. that evening.

I’d never liked that canyon; it’s deep and narrow, claustrophobic, with steep rock walls closely hemming in the river and the highway, and I haven’t driven it since.

Most of our canyons sprouted “Climb to safety in case of a flash flood” signs in the years after the flood. Grim reminders that nature here is not to be ignored. Later, high water sensors were developed and installed to supplement the signs and sound early warnings even from remote locations.

Still, whenever I’m driving a canyon, I feel an extra urgency to keep moving. Canyons, after all, are only good for getting to the high country.

... and that's my two cents

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