Today is the 34th anniversary of the Big Thompson Canyon Flood. More than 140 people lost their lives when Colorado’s Big Thompson River flooded after thunderstorms dropped torrential rains. It was Colorado’s Centennial Weekend and the canyon was especially crowded with campers.
Meteorologist John Henz, then working for a Ft. Collins radio station, tried to warn the campers and others in the canyon of the threat of flooding as storms developed over the upper reaches of the Big Thompson River. According to NOAA, more than eight inches of rain fell in a single hour.
The National Weather Service at the time had a radar in Limon, Colorado, but the warning responsibility rested with meteorologists in Denver (who could not view the radar). The Denver meteorologists elected not to issue a warning. In Warnings, I explain how this event, along with Delta 191, and others led to the National Weather Service’s reorganization in the 1990′s that eliminated the dangerous separation of the radar from the warning responsibility.
There is much more about the flood here.
The Denver Post’s Howard Pankratz writes this memoir from which the title of this posting is taken. He hiked in to the disaster area the next morning along with Post photographer Erie Leyba who took the photo below:
The good news is it is virtually certain that today, if the same meteorological and hydrological situation were to present itself, there would be excellent warning. It is known that some people attempted to drive to safety and they were swept away by the flood. In a flash flood in a narrow canyon, the only safe course of action, once a warning is received, is to climb to safety.