Novel Urban Disasters: Insights from the Colorado 100-Year Flood

In September, 2013, the state of Colorado experienced what has been called a “1,000 year flood” that resulted in four deaths and billions of dollars of damage to property and roadways. I was living in Boulder, Colorado at the time, working as a postdoc at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and it was indeed a dramatic time. The house and neighborhood I lived in were flooded, people were stranded (or had been evacuated) in various parts of the city, and we could see the National Guard coming in and out of town at regular intervals. And it continued to rain…


Floodwaters move through a neighborhood park in Boulder, colorado in September, 2013.

As someone with an interest in urban water management and climate change policy the flood provided a unique opportunity to observe and experience disaster response first hand. It became immediately clear that we (as a family and as a community) were vulnerable and needed assistance if we were to cope effectively with the flood. This vulnerability and need for help (and patience) is perhaps the clearest “lesson” I’ve taken with me from the flood. Here I offer some reflections on a few of the key players that provided that assistance. Each of these players was necessary, and I suspect they each played a role in the relatively low number of deaths that resulted from the flood.

The Neighbors

Many studies have shown the importance of social networks and social capital to effective disaster response and adaptive capacity. My experience in the Colorado flood fully supports this work. We were renting our home, but many of our neighbors have lived in their homes for 10 or 20 years and know much more about local services and the housing units themselves than we did. Our neighbors were our lifeline to the neighborhood association, local contractors and service providers, and information about environmental conditions. In one area of our neighborhood, someone noticed his basement flooding and notified those living immediately adjacent to him. They were able to get their belongings out of their basements before they were damaged. Those of us who weren’t warned had greater property damage and higher water levels.

The flood also changed and challenged the neighborhood in some ways. When a roving reconstruction company came through the neighborhood, many people signed up to have them pump the water out of their basement and re-do the interior. It soon became apparent that the company had over-committed itself and was falling far behind its stated schedule. There were some tensions among neighbors as peopled vied for the reconstruction company’s attention. Space in garbage containers was also limited, and tempers would flare when someone would break the rules about how the space was to be used. There were also conflicts between the home owners and the home owners association over who was to be held accountable for the property damage.

But overall, the flood increased the cohesiveness of the neighborhood. One neighbor remarked that it was the most she had spoken to her neighbors in the entire time she had lived in her house. I think there is some evidence that the social capital of the neighborhood is higher as a result of the flood.

The Media

While the flood was happening, we were glued to the news. It was absolutely critical that we were able to get up to date information about the flood conditions, weather reports, and available resources. The local news stations provided nearly continuous coverage and it was immensely valuable.

The Federal Government

A disaster of this scale cannot be dealt with by a local – or even a state – government alone. Federal resources played a very big role in flood response, and continue to play a big role in the recovery. As I mentioned above, the National Guard were instrumental in evacuating people in dangerous and isolated places and spent at least one week on the task. We received information from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) almost immediately and had some relief funds from them within a week. I continue to receive emails and phone calls from FEMA and the Small Business Administration (SBA) making me aware of resources I may be eligible for. Having a fast and coordinated federal response was crucial. Federal money is helping to reconstruct the miles of roads that were lost in the flood, though the state is confronting some of the limits to this support. The longer-term relationship of the federal government to the flood recovery is still to be seen.


Events like this are sure to become more frequent, and the more we can do to lessen their impacts the better. This flood probably would not have been part of a typical flood-preparation planning process or strategy because it has never been seen before. How can urban water management and disaster response best prepare for the unexpected and novel events that climate change may produce? Colorado’s experience may provide some important lessons.

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