Rising Above: Colorado State University 10 Years After the Spring Creek Flood

The flood of July 28, 1997, indelibly changed Colorado State and ultimately guided the university to develop innovations for which it continues to be recognized as a national leader.

Sustaining more than $120 million in damages only 28 days before fall classes were to start, the university’s employees faced a daunting task of reopening with virtually every textbook for the fall semester destroyed, massive damage to Morgan Library and Lory Student Center, displaced faculty and departments, and significant damage to many other buildings on campus. In addition, many professors lost their life’s work when their offices flooded, destroying years of research and collections. One professor lost 2,200 books stored in his office, 80 percent of which were out of print.

While many people experienced irrevocable losses on campus and in Fort Collins, and five people in town were killed, the university’s spirit of community and teamwork created opportunities out of the crisis. Ten years after the flood, the university has:

– a nationall -renowned library and interlibrary-loan program,

– a state-of-the art amateur precipitation monitoring  etwork system in 19 states,  

– a more robust emergency management team and plan,

– an updated, accessible and attractive student center,

– a bookstore that can accommodate more than double its previous capacity,  

– improved campus landscapes to protect the university from another flood of serious magnitude,

– and a national expert and laboratory specializing in mold mitigation.

"The flood brought out the courage and spirit of the campus community, and it left us with a special confidence that the future of this university is truly in our hands-that we can achieve greatness even under the most difficult circumstances," Colorado State President Larry Edward Penley said. "We cannot talk about the flood without acknowledging the extraordinary leadership of President Emeritus Al Yates and Vice President Gerry Bomotti at the time, who set a goal that Colorado State would emerge from the disaster not only intact, but in better shape than it had been before. Colorado State today is deeply indebted to their vision and commitment, and to all the people on campus, in our community, and around the world who pulled together to support Colorado State during a crisis of historic proportions."

In 1997, then President Yates issued a challenge to the university to rebuild upon what the university had before – to seize the chance to "transform Colorado State University into the kind of institution we all want it to be."

Within two days, summer classes had resumed, many in alternate sites. Within a week of the flood, the university hosted a conference with 5,000 visitors. Within a month, the library was open. Within 28 days, on August 25, fall semester classes started on time. A few days before classes started, the bookstore – which had been declared a total loss with $5 million of textbooks destroyed – was reopened with 85 percent of the books available to students from a temporary location.

At the time, Morgan Library was undergoing significant remodeling primarily to provide space to expand resources that could be available to students. At the time, the library was among the lowest ranked major academic repositories in the nation. The Legislature had earmarked $13 million for renovations with another $7 million contributed by private donors. The flood collapsed an exterior wall and a portion of the foundation, exploding numerous windows. Basement shelves holding 425,000 volumes were toppled and submerged under about eight and a half feet of water.

When the waters receded, 39 buildings on campus had sustained damage. The university’s historic oval became a swimming pool for files, books and chairs pushed there from buildings across campus. Following the flood, more than 5 million gallons of water had to be pumped from university buildings.

The task of recovering documents was daunting, including library books, faculty papers and administrative records, and even a safe containing $1.5 million in promissory notes.

Disseminating accurate information was also a difficult task with telephones lines and computer wiring damaged in many buildings, which meant that virtually all communication among campus employees during the recovery took place via cell phone and in person. Updating information on the university’s Web site and through the media was an essential task.

"This was a textbook lesson in how to communicate during a crisis,"  said Cara Neth, director of presidential and administrative communications. "Although access to campus was restricted, many of us made our way into work and just started pitching in wherever we could. One of the biggest challenges was getting the word out to the anxious families of our summer students and of people who were on campus to attend conferences. Phone lines were down or overloaded, and this was before the time when everybody had a cell phone or the ability to text message. We relied heavily on e-mail and the web, which were still relatively new technologies at that point, and on our good old-fashioned Snow Line (491-SNOW), which Colorado State still uses during weather emergencies. We also really relied on the help of the media. The flood made news worldwide.

"For those first few weeks, we were just patching together systems and processes to get the job done and keep people informed about the recovery process. At the same time, offers of assistance and support were pouring in from alumni and universities around the world, which helped us all stay positive and energized."

Gerry Bomotti, vice president for administrative services at the time of the flood, coordinated the flood recovery efforts, marshalling work teams from across campus to manage the clean up, restore buildings and services, and prepare for the start of classes. He also led efforts over the next several years to improve flood mitigation on campus to prevent another disaster of the same magnitude.

"Since the flood, the university has incorporated several elements into its landscape that can help protect it from another flood of this magnitude," said Earlie Thomas, director of Environmental Health Services at the university. "We noticed after 1997 that some of the buildings that were flooded had been flooded in the past, once in the 1950s and once in the 1930s. After repairs were made to the buildings, we worked on terrain around campus. During the three years following the flood, we spent about $3 million on flood prevention. We installed larger drainage conduits, berms and retaining walls around some buildings in strategic locations to better protect them from flood waters. The new landscape of campus is different yet attractive. For example, the area around the lagoon was flat in 1997, but it now includes berms and rolling hills which look nice, but would also redirect flood waters from the Lory Student Center and the Engineering Building."

The extensive damage to the library demanded considerable adaption and quick adoption of new technologies so the school year wouldn’t be disrupted.

"We are in such a different place now. The whole recovery process has changed our direction in a fast way," said Carmen Bush, assistant dean of the library who was in the library the night of the flood. "We are better able to serve faculty and students."

The lower level of the Lory Student Center was devastated by the flood waters, which reached nearly to the ceiling. In keeping with the challenge to make the university better, Colorado State seized the opportunity to rebuild the lower level to make it more functional and attractive to students. A bowling alley and game room were replaced with expanded seating, dining and retail services, a post office and student organization offices. Outdated student media facilities wiped out by the flood were rebuilt in ways to better support the contemporary needs of the student newspaper, radio station and TV network.

In response to gaps in weather-observing strategies, Nolan Doesken, then assistant state climatologist and senior research associate for Colorado State University, formed a network of volunteers – called the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) – to take daily measurements of rain, snow and hail using a simple rain gauge and foil-wrapped Styrofoam pads.

Today, CoCoRaHS has a national coordinator, Henry Reges, and major national reach with 4,500 active volunteers and several new states coming on board every year. Volunteers are active in 19 states or regions: Alaska, Colorado, District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Expected to join within the next few months are Iowa, Florida, New York and North Carolina.

Doug Rice, senior researcher and director of the university’s Environmental Quality Laboratory, began work immediately to mitigate mold on library books, personnel records and faculty and staff papers. Today, he is a national expert on mold and has traveled around the world – from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to foreign countries – helping protect people and animals against the health hazards of mold.

"My experience with the flood changed my life dramatically and it changed the face and focus of my lab to a lesser degree," said Rice. "Prior to the flood I helped textile firms, bottled water companies and municipal entities address mold. My lab at the university has given a hand to other entities such as universities, hospitals and libraries with major water intrusion problems. Notably, the National Archive in Ukraine consulted Colorado State after its flooding three years ago."

The 1997 flood occurred after 5.31 inches of rain fell within about five hours, according to the university’s official weather station, representing the largest amount of rainfall in a 6-hour period in the 108-year history of the station. Heavier rain – by several inches — fell west of campus, swelling the normally benign ankle-deep Spring Creek and overwhelming drainage systems and causing flash floods.

The university has been flooded on two other occasions, once in 1938 and once in 1951. During those floods, waters damaged many of the same buildings as those damaged in 1997. The improvements to campus landscaping, such as new retaining walls, were designed to prevent additional serious flooding.

"Colorado State University today is both better prepared for a natural disaster of this type and better able to fulfill its mission to the people of Colorado, thanks to the tremendous effort and commitment that went into the flood recovery," Penley said. "As we look back from the vantage point of 10 years, I think this institution can feel very proud of how far it has come."

Colorado State University will mark the 10th anniversary of the Spring Creek flood with a display in the Morgan Library of photographs and archives.

Suggested sidebar:


– CSU scientists gathered rainfall data from residents who observed the storm at more than 300 locations to develop a timeline of how much rainfall had fallen and where.

– 10 to 14.5 inches of rain fell over a 30-hour period in a band extending along the base of the Foothills between southwest Fort Collins and an area northwest of Laporte.

– No 6-hour period has ever come close to dropping as much rainfall on the CSU campus as the 5.3 inches that fell from 6-10:30 p.m. on July 28, 1997.

– Storms of the magnitude that caused the Spring Creek Flood in 1997 have been observed once every 10 to 20 years somewhere in Colorado, particularly in or near the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

Notable floods in Fort Collins area history:

– July 1997 (Spring Creek Flood): 10-14 inches in 30 hours, five people dead.

– July 1976 (Big Thompson River): 6-10 inches, 139 people dead.

– August 1951: 6 inches in 27 hours.

– September 1938: 4.6 inches in 48 hours.

– September 1902: 6.2 inches in 48 hours.

Source: Colorado State University’s "Fort Collins Flood 1997: Comprehensive View of an Extreme Event"