University archives document 2013 flood history

Veronica Baas

Two years ago, 17 counties in Northern Colorado were affected by flooding. To document this natural disaster, the Colorado Water Conservation Board funded a project called the Oral Histories of the 2013 Northern Colorado Flood.

The principal investigator for the project, Ruth Alexander, teamed up with Patricia Rettig from the Water Resources Archive to create the collection.

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“With me as the archivist and Ruth as the historian, we were doing a history project, but we wanted it to apply to the future as well,” Rettig said.

Alexander was inspired to research the flood after her CSU colleague documented the Big Thompson Flood of 1976.

“Now long-since retired, a man by the name of David McComb had done oral histories and written a book about the 1976 flood that came through the Big Thompson Canyon and killed 143 people,” Alexander said.

McComb’s collection spotlighted the victims of the 1976 flood and their experiences during the crisis. With guidance from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Alexander and Rettig decided to take a different angle.

The Oral Histories of the 2013 Northern Colorado Flood focus on the community members involved in managing the flood. This research can then be used to improve flood mitigation, flood preparation, the rescue and relief process and recovery in the future.

“We also found out that there were two other groups doing these same sort of oral histories and they were focused more on the survivors, and so nobody was focusing on how the water professionals deal with this and what they were doing,” Rettig said. “So, we thought we could fill a niche that way and match what the funding was looking for.”

For over a year, the two researched and documented the flood. The collection was officially completed and published online toward the end of September.

The team interviewed 30 people who held various managerial positions at agencies who handled the flood, focusing on the lessons they learned.

“That meant people who were dealing with the meteorology and the analysis of the weather, in search and rescue, in recovery, in trying to coordinate services between towns,” Alexander said.

Naomi Gerakios, research coordinator for the project, wrote a rough draft of the final report for the collection. Then she passed it on to Alexander, who refined and edited the report.

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The full report, oral histories and transcribed interviews are now complete and can be found online on the University archives website. There are also newspaper clippings from the days of the flood that serve as a smaller part of the collection.

“As we tried to pull together our findings, we came up with a number of things,” Alexander said. “One was that communities and counties needed to create and implement master plans for water shed protection.”

Designing such plans can be difficult due to all the different stakeholders involved. In any given town, there are industries, residencies, commercial businesses, some form of agriculture and so on. All of these groups of people have different interests and opinions on water protection.

“It’s a very mixed-use area, and all of the different people there have different interests and different interests in accessing water,” Alexander said. “So it’s hard to get people to agree on watershed protection.”

Another discovery the team made was the importance of mutual aid agreements. Several of the community members interviewed claim there were already some in place, but not nearly enough.

“During the flood, Colorado was able to use a mutual aid agreement to get equipment that it needed from a neighboring state,” Alexander said. “Many people I spoke to thought we needed more of those agreements so that if Fort Collins finds itself in a really bad situation, it knows it can call Greeley for a certain kind of assistance.”

Floods of this severity have happened in the past, and they are bound to happen again. By documenting where the city could have done better, city officials can create efficient plans for successful flood relief in the future.

Collegian Reporter Veronica Baas can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @vcbaas.