The timing could not have been scripted any better, certainly not for a region trying to demonstrate both its progress and its vulnerability.
Monday morning, first-year U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner paid a quick visit to the Pikes Peak region, specifically to check out the Waldo Canyon burn scar as well as ongoing mitigation work. We knew it happened on short notice, because local media didn’t know until being notified by El Paso County — in an email Sunday.
Little did anyone realize (certainly not Gardner, who squeezed the stop into a busy recess schedule), but the moment was perfect. There the senator stood, where the Waldo Canyon fire swooped down to the edge of Cascade, telling reporters “much good work has been done … but there’s still a lot of work to do.”
At that instant, Sen. Gardner couldn’t have known how prophetic his words soon would become.
Within an hour, fast-gathering clouds of a typical August monsoon event coalesced over the burn scar, just up the hill from where Gardner had been along with County Commissioner Sallie Clark, Green Mountain Falls Mayor Lorrie Worthey, new County Administrator Henry Yankowski and others.
The downpour began shortly after noon, unleashing what would be about 1.85 inches in just more than a half-hour on the Upper Williams Canyon area, thought to be the most dangerous location for a severe rain event in the area ravaged by fire in the summer of 2012.
By 12:30 p.m., debris and sludge were cascading down the canyon into Manitou Springs, clogging a concrete channel built to handle just such an event, considered the equivalent of a 10-year flood. But this was momentarily worse, as water and mud poured down Cañon Avenue and into the Manitou Spa Building, caking the just-opened Creekside Cuisine. Officials said it could have been far worse, if not for mitigation work already done.
At about the same time, a few miles to the northeast, a similar avalanche of mud, tree branches and rocks broke through a retention pond in Mountain Shadows and sent a fast-moving river of gunk down Flying W Ranch Boulevard. If you saw the Facebook video of a flash flood racing down Camp Creek (between the two sides of 31st Street, south of Garden of the Gods), you couldn’t help but be stunned.
Gardner was gone by then, but rest assured he saw video of what happened so quickly after he left. It drove home one of the points Commissioner Clark and others wanted to make, that any severe flooding in the aftermath of a major fire should qualify to be covered for federal assistance as part of the original disaster declaration.
The other point was how national forests that have been allowed to grow too dense are creating volatile threats for more major wildfires. Federal funding has been proposed to deal with that forest maintenance issue, but it’s not an easy sell in Congress. Perhaps Gardner, despite the fact he comes from the Eastern Plains town of Wray, will become a stronger ally for that cause now.
Meanwhile, the Monday storm made a distinct impression on some other newcomers to the area. On the heels of President Barack Obama recently declaring El Paso County and Manitou Springs as disaster areas from the most recent flooding in May, a three-person team from the Federal Emergency Management Agency arrived and just last week began setting up a temporary building for an office in Manitou.
As the FEMA folks began scoping out areas affected by the May floods, they made one point clear to Manitou officials. They conceded that when El Paso County qualified for federal help after the serious urban flooding of August 2013, this area had to wait for people and resources. That’s because FEMA rightly felt it had to concentrate more on the catastrophic flooding north of Boulder, particularly between Lyons and Estes Park.
But this time, as a FEMA staffer told the Pikes Peak Bulletin just last week, El Paso County and Manitou would be the “belle of the ball” in terms of federal attention. FEMA had already encouraged Manitou to “dream big” in pursuing disaster aid.
That was before Monday, when those same FEMA people had a front-row seat to the latest sudden, stunning floods in Manitou and Mountain Shadows. Rest assured, it’ll be easier now for them to justify helping even more.
It should be said, thanks to the mitigation efforts that did work, only that one Manitou business was directly affected this time, and Creekside Cuisine planned to open again a day later.
More work is needed. So while the economic impact could have been far worse, if ever a flash flood could be considered perfect timing, this was it.