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Boulder leaders describe lessons learned during flood

Sarah Kuta | The Colorado Daily, Boulder

Even though Boulder leaders had planned for a different kind of catastrophic flood than the one that occurred in September, much of their planning and mitigation efforts paid off anyway during the five-day deluge.

Boulder Mayor Matt Appelbaum and City Manager Jane Brautigam described the lessons they learned from September’s floods to more than 350 people at the 39th Annual Natural Hazards Research and Applications Workshop in Broomfield on Monday. The four-day conference at the Omni Interlocken hotel brings together researchers and practitioners to talk about disasters, weather and other hazards.

As part of a plenary session, Appelbaum described how the city’s extensive amount of open space, multi-use creek paths, high-hazard property acquisition and collaboration with other organizations helped mitigate the effects of the flood on the city, and assisted in the rebuilding process afterward.

“Definitely plan ahead, but you’re not gonna get it all right,” Appelbaum advised. “The planning we did turned out to be invaluable, even though it wasn’t really for a flood of this particular type and style and magnitude. But it still helped and it still worked.”

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In addition to the flood, Appelbaum also talked about fire danger and drought, and how all three types of disasters are connected and possibly increasing because of climate change.

Brautigam described the city’s financial reserves and how useful they’ve been during the rebuilding process.

Though the Federal Emergency Management will help financially during a disaster like the 2013 flood, she said, Boulder needed to be able to use its money upfront for the cost of the repairs, then wait for reimbursement from FEMA.

She also urged conference attendees to consider advocating for changes in the way federal disaster aid is given.

Boulder wants to rebuild to be better, stronger and more resistent to disaster, but that hasn’t been easy, she said.

“The thing we have found is that FEMA is kind of set up to get you from your unfortunate flood state or disaster state back to where you were before and that’s not what we wanted in Boulder,” she said. “We wanted to build back better.”

As Brautigam called for change at the federal level, the audience — which had been silent up to that point — applauded her suggestion.

Other panelists who spoke about the 2013 floods included Brian Varrella of the city of Fort Collins and the Colorado Association of Stormwater and Floodplain Managers, and Bob Henson with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, or UCAR, in Boulder.

Henson described the meteorological and hydrological components of the flood, including some unusual characteristics.

He said the timing of the flood in September — which is not peak flash flood season in Colorado — was odd. He also said the duration of rain over five days and the swath of land affected by flooding was unusual.

“Many records were set, especially over this long time period,” Henson said.