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Fort Collins looks back 20 years after Spring Creek flood

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Five men and women stand on the west side of the Eddy building following the Spring Creek flood. (Photo courtesy of University Historic Photographic Collection, CSU Libraries, Archives & Special Collection)

Chris Wolf was one of two Colorado State University police officers working the night shift on July 28, 1997 when torrential rain started to pour in Fort Collins.

Wolf, the current Emergency Management Specialist at Poudre Fire Authority, said he went to dinner with his colleague before starting their 12-hour shift at the CSU Police Department, then located in the basement of the Hartshorn Health Center.

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“I remember distinctly looking out the window (and) saying to the guy I was working with, ‘It sure is raining hard tonight,’ never really realizing what the night would hold for us,” Wolf said.

During the summer of 1997, Fort Collins experienced six weeks of hot, dry weather. Around 6:30 p.m. on July 28, however, the dry spell was broken.

Rain started to fall. For 30 hours, between 10 and 14.5 inches of rain fell over the City. Spring Creek overflowed and damaged surrounding infrastructure, and the floodwaters resulted in over $200 million in damages, according to the City of Fort Collins’s official website.

While Wolf was at work on campus, his mother-in-law, who was watching his two-year-old son, called him to tell him the basement of their house was flooding, and he would later receive a call from his wife, who was trapped in her car due to the floodwaters.

“I had to stay on campus,” Wolf said. “There would have been no way I could get over to (my) house. By that time, Shields was a lake. Things were getting pretty chaotic around midnight that night.”

Wolf was stationed in Moby Arena for several hours of the night to provide updates about the flooding to the organizers of a high school spiritual program.

According to Colorado Encyclopedia, the 3,500 students attending the program were supposed to move into the Lory Student Center but remained in Moby Arena because the program lasted longer than anticipated. By the time the program in Moby ended, the basement of the LSC had flooded.

A freight train also derailed by a trailer park near Prospect Road and College Avenue and ruptured a gas line, according to the Weather and Climate Impact Assessment Program. The broken gas line resulted in some of the trailers catching on fire.

Five residents died during the flood, four of whom lived in the trailer park. The fifth victim was a resident downstream near the trailer park, according to the Weather and Climate Impact Assessment Program.

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Fifty-four residents were injured, and over 200 homes were destroyed.

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Debris was gathered into piles outside of the CSU Bookstore following the Spring Creek flood. (Photo courtesy of University Historic Photographic Collection, CSU Libraries, Archives & Special Collection)

The flooding in the LSC basement resulted in the bookstore losing $1 million worth of semester’s textbooks, and 425,000 books stored in the Morgan Library during a renovation project were damaged.

In addition to the damages at the LSC and the basement of the Morgan Library, the Eddy building, and the CSUPD offices were some of the buildings affected by the flooding. The fiscal damages to the campus totaled over $100 million, according to Colorado Encyclopedia.

The buildings most affected by the rainfall were more likely to flood because of their location in the floodplain that runs through campus, according to Fred Haberecht, the assistant director of Facilities Management and campus planner.

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Debris from the Spring Creek flood is present both inside and outside of a basement window in the William E. Morgan Library. (Photo courtesy of University Historic Photographic Collection, CSU Libraries, Archives & Special Collection)

Haberecht said that the city and the campus modified existing buildings on campus to prevent flooding from happening again.

“There was a lot of remedial work to protect and mitigate from the next flood, so you’ll see those (mitigations) in the general landscape,” Haberecht said. “Eddy used to have a street on the west side, and now there’s a plaza there because it’s a flood protection wall. On the west side of the library, you’ll see that there’s a kind of moat. That’s a flood protection wall.”

According to Haberecht, new buildings are designed to prevent damage in future flood events.

“(It was) a catastrophic event … (and) there’s been very intentional planning with new buildings to protect from the next event,” Haberecht said. “All the new structures are cognisant of what a floodplain is, and they’re built to be protected.”

Collegian news director Haley Candelario can be reached at hcandelario@collegian.com or on Twitter @H_Candelario98.

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