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Flooding 50 years ago changed the face of Denver

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DENVER -- It was 50 years ago this week when flooding hit metro Denver and Colorado on historic proportions. The flooding changed the landscape of metro Denver and eastern Colorado.

It killed 21 people and damaged or destroyed more than 1,700 buildings in the Denver area. Damage was estimated at $543 million, which would equal approximately $4 billion in today's dollars. Chatfield Dam was built to keep a similar flood from happening.

The rain started falling June 13 on the eastern foothills. Many of the storms were severe and produced large hail and funnel clouds.

On June 14-15, the heaviest rain fell in the Greeley-Sterling area as well as Colorado Springs and Deer Trail in eastern Arapahoe County. An unofficial report of 12 inches fell during the night of June 14-15 at a ranch 36 mile northeast of Fort Collins.

A cold front settled into the area and became a stationary front by the morning of June 15. The stormy weather just sat there.

By June 16, rainfall amounts increased substantially in much of eastern and southeastern Colorado.

The following is from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder:

“Unofficial rain amounts for June 16 in the South Platte basin were unprecedented. Heavy rains, unofficially 5 inches to 10 inches, also occurred to the south near Trinidad and a reported 3 inches to 7 inches fell in the vicinity of Cripple Creek. The torrential rains continued late into June 17. Rainfall amounts of over 5 inches for the 24-hour period ending in the late afternoon of June 17 were common in the storm area.

“Extreme rains fell over both the South Platte River and the Arkansas River Basins, causing a series of flood waves which resulted in progressive flooding. In the South Platte River basin severe river flooding was widespread from Plum Creek, just south of Denver, downstream to the Colorado-Nebraska State line.

“The flooding along the South Platte River from Plum Creek to North Platte, Nebraska was the most destructive. The flood reached the South Platte River and the metropolitan areas of Denver by about 8 p.m. on June 16. The floodwaters spread to a half-mile or more in width.

“The Denver metropolitan area suffered extensive damage. The flood zone represented 67 percent of the industrial area in the city. While the flood passed rather quickly on the night of June 16, the floodwaters were piled high with debris such as house trailers, lumber and large butane storage tanks. Many of the bridges in the downtown area became plugged with debris and were washed out when they could no longer withstand the pressure.”

Cleanup in the city of Denver took several months.

Read more from the NCAR report.

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