FORT COLLINS - A freakish river surge through the heart of Fort Collins jarred residents from daily routines Friday, wholly cutting off the city's north end.
The Poudre River ballooned to more than 100 times its normal size. Over the river, 10 bridges in Fort Collins were closed and guarded with flashing emergency vehicles.
"I was taken aback by how powerful the river really was," said City Manager Darin Atteberry, who authorized closing bridges within the city to vehicles.
Businesses, government offices, elementary schools, Colorado State University and seemingly everything in between was shut down. Restaurant and grocery trucks were cut off as high waters and closures on all sides of the city isolated it from the rest of the Front Range. People in danger from the floods received reverse 911 calls advising them to move to higher ground.
But unlike recent wildfires and blizzards in recent years, the skies cleared within a day and people were stuck in place under blue skies with significant flooding within the city limited to a few low-lying areas near the river. There were no reports of looting. Many ventured to the river's edge, catching glimpses of the rushing, brown water.
As hours passed without a raindrop and levels began to recede, the community began to wonder when the bridges would reconnect Fort Collins to itself.
But re-opening bridges isn't as easy as closing them, officials say. High waters smash big trees and other debris into the piers, each causing potential damage. Each bridge's structural integrity must be inspected, and its history is reviewed. Heavy vehicles could cause a weak bridge to collapse, said Rick Richter, Fort Collins director of infrastructure.
"We can't get underwater to see what's happening at the foundation of the bridges until the water recedes," Richter said.
By late Friday afternoon, Richter said city staff were looking at the five bridges and they could begin to reopen soon. City spokeswoman Lisa Rosintoski said the city isn't comfortable immediately re-opening bridges during an emergency because of waters under a 50-year flood hours earlier.
"If anything happened to people driving over that bridge, that would be catastrophic," she said.
At 8 a.m. Friday, the Poudre River peaked around 10,500 cubic feet per second. By 5 p.m. it was down to about 6,600 cfs. In a normal September, it's normally closer to 100 cfs.
Rosintoski said the city also must weigh the possibility of the river surging again. Only Taft Hill Road in Larimer County over the Poudre River had reopened by Friday evening.
Meanwhile, Beaver's Market in Fort Collins was running out of lettuce and broccoli. A delivery truck full of fresh meat, produce, dairy and more drove from Nebraska before it was stopped 3 miles from the store at Shields Street and the Poudre River.
"Now he's back in Wellington," store owner Doug Beavers said Friday morning, adding that despite more customers than normal, the store remained decently stocked. "For the most part, we're in pretty good shape (except) for some fast sellers."
The 10 river crossings in Fort Collins are owned separately by the city, Larimer County and the Colorado Department of Transportation. Officials said they worked together in deciding to close the roads.
Atteberry said it wasn't difficult to decide to close the bridges, but he had to weigh the strain it would put on the community against risk to its residents.
"The number one objective is safety," he said. "These roads did overtop, and we know that's a very unsafe environment."
While none of the Poudre's bridges through town were reported as having water flowing directly over them, there were multiple reports that water was moving up the edges, overtopping roads around the bridges.
Rosintoski said staff were worried that with flooding "all around" bridges, people might try to drive over them and get into trouble.
Seaman Reservoir in Poudre Canyon went over capacity Thursday night as the emergency spillway channeled water. It takes about six hours for a surge from the mouth of the canyon to reach the city, said water resources engineer Greg Koch with Anderson Consulting Engineers.
By 12:30 a.m. Friday, the bridges in Fort Collins were getting shut down. Loud, cracking tree noises could be heard as a debris dam the size of a fire truck accumulated behind the nearby BNSF railroad bridge.
Police and streets crews watched for hours as the massive river came as high as 4 feet above the Poudre Trail recreation path. Civilians were told to keep their vehicles off the bridge in case it collapsed. But the rise was gradual, and the overall damage wasn't nearly as bad as other parts of Colorado experienced in the recent floods.
"The storm, although very difficult, could've been worse," Atteberry said.
Four flood-related deaths were reported elsewhere, but only some property damage was observed in Fort Collins. Atteberry credits "tens of millions of dollars" the city invested in infrastructure.
Koch said only the Shields Street bridge owned by Larimer County appeared to him as having the potential to collapse because of structural issues.
"It's slated to be rebuilt next year," he said, adding that its base isn't drilled into bedrock like several of the others.
He said people from Anderson worked on the Timberline Road bridge and the Harmony Road bridge, the latter of which wasn't closed. He was surprised to see the Timberline and other river crossings closed.
Other roads began to reopen Friday evening as the city's first visible sunset in several days emerged, along with a brief rainbow. Storms could continue through Sunday, but for now, the worst appears to have passed.
To report flooding, call 970-221-6700
• The following intersections and bridges remain closed as of Saturday at 4 p.m. The City of Fort Collins Police urge citizens to not remove any barricades at the following locations:
- Overland Trail
- Shields Street
- Lincoln Street
- Linden Street
• Colorado highway closures update is obtained from the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) Website, http://www.coloradodot.info/news/2013-news-releases/09-2013/roadclosures1pm.html.
• One Red Cross shelter remains open at Timberline Church, 2908 S. Timberline Rd. (just south of Drake Road on Timberline Road), 970-207-6130. Tavelli Elementary School at 1118 Miramont Dr. is on standby, which means the shelter is not accepting new evacuees. Red Cross information is available at www.redcross.org/safeandwell.
• Contact your trash hauling company to arrange for special pick-up of wastes that may have been generated from flooding.
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