From the front lines of flood response and recovery

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Personal recollections from a pivotal moment in Colorado State University history, 20 years later

John Parry, director, CSU Bookstore

Parry had been on the job just five months when the 1997 flood hit campus. Eight feet of floodwater broke the store’s glass doors, washing away nearly everything in its path, including almost all the textbooks for fall semester. After reordering, the bookstore staff and many others worked tirelessly to get books into the hands of students so the semester could start on time.

In the aftermath, Parry recalls generosity and support from people around town and campus. CSU employees volunteered to help with the textbook distribution process. Industry representatives offered guidance and donations. “Even our competitors stepped in and helped in ways they could,” Parry said.

Five months after the flood, in January 1998, the bookstore reopened, but lingering issues – from mold remediation to rebuilding of fixtures and lights – would plague the staff for the next three years.

“The event happened July 28, but it’s what happened after that really made the difference,” Parry said. “It took me a long time to understand the emotional toll [the flood] took on those who had been here longer than I had.”

Karen McCormick, special projects coordinator, Lory Student Center

A member of the Lory Student Center staff since 1980, McCormick worked under then-LSC director Martha Blood to help the university recover from the flood disaster. Office staff worked for weeks without electricity; they powered a copy machine with a generator. With a large trailer parked outside the building, she and many others volunteered to help students receive textbooks out of a makeshift bookstore in the LSC hallway. Throughout it all, staff kept their focus on students ­– opening on time, getting them their books, meeting their needs, and keeping the university running as normally as possible.

“People were more casual (than before the flood), and everybody lent a hand to anybody in need,” McCormick said. “We worked as teams, not departments. We all did things we’d never done before, like pulling books – I could pull books with the best of them. Professors across campus donated their time. And that was what was so wonderful: They made a wonderful thing out of something that wasn’t.”

Nolan Doesken, Colorado State Climatologist

On the evening of July 27, 1997, assistant state climatologist Doesken noted that the air was unusually hot and sticky in Fort Collins. “Maybe we’ll have a storm,” he mused. What followed was unlike anything the Front Range had seen in at least two decades.

On the morning of July 28, areas around Bellevue and Laporte north of town flooded and washed out roads, even before arrival of the big storm that dumped more than a foot of rain that caused the destructive flash flooding in Fort Collins.

Surface water flowed into the Lory Student Center from west of campus, and wiped out the ground floor of Morgan Library and many other campus buildings. The library lost precious archived materials — although the bulk of the Archives had moved to the second floor of Morgan earlier in the month. Many faculty and staff, as well as Rocky Mountain Student Media, also lost irreplaceable materials when water filled their offices. The devastation also affected the campus weather station just north of the student center. Doesken remembers computers, bowling pins, and debris littering the outside of buildings as floodwater receded.

After the storm, Doesken’s job was to document the rainfall. At the time, email and web were “modest.” Through careful reconstruction that included phone calls and notes from close to 350 citizens, the Colorado Climate Center discovered the heaviest rainfall was over the Quail Hollow area, topping out at about 14 inches in one a day.

“We drew our map, and pieced together what made sense,” Doesken said. The map proved helpful for CSU officials, providing documentation for insurance claims and other post-flood needs.

Out of this effort came CoCoRaHS, the Community Rain, Hail and Snow Network, which monitors daily data from citizen precipitation spotters. CoCoRaHS has more than 20,000 volunteers in three countries today.

“Through our door-to-door efforts trying to find out where the heaviest rain fell, people invariably would say, ‘How can I help? I can set up a rain gauge,'” Doesken recalled.

The city’s flood warning system has also improved, along with weather and satellite data to more accurately forecast heavy rainfall.

Bernard Rollin, professor of philosophy, animal sciences and biomedical sciences

University Distinguished Professor Rollin was one of many who lost years of personal work and effects when his office in the basement of Eddy Hall was inundated.

“There were a lot of people in other philosophy departments around the country who sent books and established the Eddy Flood Library,” Rollin said. The university still retains those donated books today.

Gordon “Hap” Hazard, Morgan Library archives researcher

In 1997, Hazard was a coordinator for CSU Conference Services, and CSU was hosting an International Youth Conference with more than 100 high school students on campus. During the heaviest rain of July 28, the young guests were in Moby Arena, getting ready to attend evening activities at the Lory Student Center. Instead, they spent the night in Moby, unable to leave due to flash flooding.

“Their evening program in Moby had gone long,” Hazard said. “That turned out to be an absolute blessing.” A few LSC staff members who had been setting up for the activities managed to escape before the floodwaters overwhelmed the bottom floor.

Chris Wolf, retired CSUPD officer

On the night of July 28, Officer Wolf was working the night shift and commented on how much it was raining, having no idea it was about to get much worse.

Around 8:30 p.m., he received a call from his mother-in-law, who told him his basement was starting to flood. He started driving home but only got a few blocks because the roads were becoming impassable.

As Wolf was coming back, he responded to a medical call at Moby.

“After taking care of the medical, I was instructed to stay and act as a liaison to the [high school] group,” he recalled. “The campus was starting to see some serious flooding and we were not allowing the kids back into the residence halls.”

At about 10:30 p.m., the police station, then in the basement of the Hartshorn Student Health Center, was abandoned as it began to flood. “At CSU it felt like we were cut off from the rest of the world,” Wolf said.

Things were also getting very tense in the Johnson Mobile Home Park just south of campus near College and Prospect. Most of the city’s resources were there as people were trapped and the water was rapidly rising.

“At one point in the early morning hours, I remember standing at the northeast corner of the Lory Student Center watching thousands of gallons of water pour out the windows along with the textbooks that had just arrived for fall semester,” Wolf said. “By 6 a.m., most of the water had receded and we began trying to assess the damage. A sobering call came over the radio reporting a body had just been discovered near someone’s shed.”

Mike Gavin, Poudre Fire Authority captain

Captain Gavin was unable to respond to the devastation at Johnson Trailer Park because the streets in his southwest Fort Collins neighborhood were under several feet water by then.

“That evening I remember seeing the storm drainage area behind my house begin to turn into a river and approach my back yard,” he said. “As the evening progressed, we sandbagged the back of the house to try and keep water out if it continued to rain and the drainage area that ran into Spring Creek continued to rise.”

It did. By about 7 p.m. water had risen to about a foot against the back of the house and was beginning to enter the basement. They gave up on trying to remove the water with a shop vacuum, and decided to move anything they could up to the first floor and sit out the storm.

Interior walls were ruined, carpet, bedding and various other items had to be discarded due to unknown contamination in the water — molds, fungus and bacteria.

“Yet we were fortunate in that no one was injured at our home or in our neighborhood,” Gavin said. “I hope to never experience an event like this again.”

Tom Milligan, Vice President of External Relations

In 1997, Milligan was head of University Relations (now the Division of External Relations). After the flood hit, one of the university’s chief goals was opening on time for fall semester, which it achieved just 28 days later, but cleanup and recovery continued far beyond. While the internet as we know it today was in its infancy, Milligan quickly realized that the university’s website could be a critical tool for disseminating information about the flood and its aftermath to campus, the media, and the public.

The experience of providing information after a disaster of this scale helped Milligan to understand, on a deeper level, the importance and power of reaching constituents quickly, with timely information — not just in crisis mode, but always. To meet this evolving communications need, the management of the university’s main website,, was transferred from central information technology to University Relations, where it remains.

In the 20 years since the flood, CSU has become more resilient – not just in a physical sense, but also in the culture of community rooted in the shared experience of surviving and thriving post-flood.

“We are unquestionably a better place, having successfully gotten out the other side,” Milligan said. “No matter how bad things get, you can still get better.”

Pete Wray, senior planner, City of Fort Collins

On the night of July 28, then-city planner Wray was moving into his new house in the Quail Hollow section of town, which ended up being the epicenter of the rain that overwhelmed Spring Creek.

“The magnitude of that rain, I will never forget, or the sound of the rain coming down,” Wray said.

It was surprising to most people how the normally trickling Spring Creek could fill with so much water, he recalled.

In the ensuing years, the city’s planning department has worked closely with stormwater utility staff and many others to coordinate better local flood mitigation, including compliance with updated federal floodplain regulations.

The city and CSU have worked together to mitigate flood impacts, Wray said. The regional detention ponds at Hughes Stadium are one example of city-CSU cooperation to protect low-lying areas should that area become overwhelmed again. Others are the large ponds north of West Elizabeth and Taft, as well as between Prospect and Shields, and further west by Prospect and Overland.

“These new ponds capture a lot of the flows before they overtop into other areas,” Wray said. “The city has been, I think, proactive. And as a result, compared to the rest of the country, the amount of commitment since the 1997 flood to improve the situation has been significant.”

Read more about the 1997 flood.