Video and recollections of the 1997 flood

Don’t understate the magnitude of the 1997 flood!

Former Colorado State Climatologist Nolan Doesken offered some further personal recollections of the 1997 flood, which you can read below.

I think the recent SOURCE article actually understated the magnitude of the overland flow coming into campus down Elizabeth St.  For kicks, I’ll elaborate a bit.

The last cars through the intersection of Shields and Elizabeth made it through precariously just after 8:00 p.m.  One was a Climate Center staff person who had just completed the evening weather observation from the Campus weather station.  She was fortunately driving her husband’s large 4-wheel drive truck rigged for off-roading  or she would have been swept off the road (like others that followed her).  The flow down Elizabeth coming into campus for the next 2 ½ to 3 hours was described to be “like the Poudre River during a typical spring snowmelt.”  It literally eroded away portions of the south end of the Moby parking lot. Chunks of asphalt showed up as far away as the lagoon.  The cascading actually continued right through the Engineering/Lory Student Center parking lot – but only after a large lake had first formed upstream of the LSC dam. When the dam broke – when entry doors and windows on the West side of LSC  gave way at the same time that the driveway to LSC past the weather station overtopped –  that’s when things got crazy.  We have photos of large standing waves there among the parking meters: class 3 rapids, I believe, as you would see in a rushing river.  I always had thought that the campus weather station was on high ground.  But for at least 45 minutes that night (no one was on duty at that time) we were engulfed in fast-flowing water. That is the flood surge that then roared through the music building and gradually filled the Oval with a whole lot of water, backed up by the railroad tracks there (similar to what was happening at that same time at Spring Creek).

Photo showing flood waters in a parking lot, with a car submerged up to the hood.
High water in the parking lot outside the Engineering building and Lory Student Center in the early hours of July 29, 1997.

I got a call at home in the wee hours of the morning of July 29 telling me to report in to campus early to assess damage at the weather station.  I could scarcely believe it but as I arrived on campus.  The sure sign of a disaster recovery effort in progress greeted me: the drumming sound of helicopters overhead.   I was actually quite surprised at how accessible campus was (at least from the direction I approached – from the NW) and how little standing water remained. (I arrived about 6 AM only about 7 ½ hours after the rain had ended.) But then the reality of the immensity of what had taken place just a few hours earlier began to sink in. Why was the LSC parking lot littered with bowling pins and work station computers/printers?  Then I realized that the whole lower level had been flushed out.  Yes, CSU had a nice bowling alley downstairs that I had used and enjoyed in my early years at CSU.

The weather station was largely intact despite having been inundated with knee-deep fast flowing water.  We did have some electronics but they were all elevated at desk-top level and survived unharmed. But when it came time to complete the storm rainfall assessment, only one of the five rain gauges that we routinely operate, came through unscathed – and that was the old fashioned manual “Standard Rain Gauge.”   Each of the somewhat more sophisticated recording rain gauges failed at some point.  Thank heavens we still used that standard gauge, which is still in use today.  It would have truly been an embarrassment to have not known how much rain fell.

Historic video documents CSU recovery

This video, produced immediately after the flood, gives a more visceral sense of the damage and the impact the flood had on faculty, staff, and students at Colorado State University.