July 31, 1976 started like most other summer days in Colorado. It was 1976 and the nation was celebrating its bicentennial and Colorado was celebrating its centennial. What should have been a quiet summer day quickly turned disastrous as the Big Thompson Flood killed more than 100 people in Colorado’s deadliest natural disaster.
In terms of weather, the day started out much like one would expect but by late afternoon storm clouds loomed over the mountains. Mountain thunderstorms are an almost daily occurrence in Colorado but the storm that struck in the early evening that day was unlike any other.
With light winds aloft, the storm stalled over the upper portion of the Big Thompson basin where it sat dumping tremendous amounts of rain – nearly 8 inches in one hour and 12 inches over four hours. The rain came so fast that the water didn’t have time to be absorbed into the ground.
I’m stuck, I’m right in the middle of it, I can’t get out…about a half mile east of Drake on the highway. Get the cars out of the low area down below…
~ Radio transmission by Sergeant Willis Hugh Purdy, Colorado State Patrol. Purdy was never heard from again.
In the mid-sections of the canyon and lower, there was little indication of what was to come. The flash flood that resulted from the rain further up rushed down the canyon creating a wall of water that was 20 feet high in places. The flood scoured the canyon of everything – cars, homes, buildings and people.
The following day the Rocky Mountain News ran with the headline “Scores dead, hundreds hurt in Big Thompson flash flood.” A subheading said, “U.S. 34 west of Loveland is no more.”
When the flood was over, 143 people had lost their lives, more than in any other natural disaster in state history. 418 homes, 52 businesses and 400 cars were destroyed at a cost of over $40 million.
- NASA satellite captures images of site of Colorado’s worst natural disaster
- USGS Fact Sheet – The Big Thompson Flood (PDF)
- Loveland Reporter Herald – Special Coverage