Colorado rarely experiences flooding disasters

September 16, 2013
Flooding in Jamestown, Colo., on Sunday, September 15, 2013 (AP Photo/ The Denver Post, Helen H. Richardson)
Flooding in Jamestown, Colo., on Sept. 15. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via AP)

The massive flooding that has destroyed or damaged more than 19,000 homes and left thousands displaced in Colorado is a once-in-a-millenium event, forecasters say. Flooding of any kind is rare in Colorado, a state much more likely to be hit by wildfires or tornadoes than torrential downpours.

Since 1953, the federal government has declared a major flooding disaster in Colorado only 12 times, according to data compiled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Only seven states have weathered fewer floods over that 60-year period.

By contrast, the federal government has issued 61 Fire Management Assistance Declarations or Fire Suppression Authorizations, both of which allow states to borrow money to fight forest fires, to Colorado since 1953.

The number of fires that regularly sweep the high forests of the Rocky Mountains makes Colorado one of the more disaster-prone states in the union. Only six other states — Texas, California, Oklahoma, Florida, Washington and New York — have compiled more major disaster declarations, emergency declarations or Fire Management Assistance Declarations in the last six decades.

Major disaster declarations by state, 1953-present:

(Source: FEMA)

The District of Columbia has been subjected to the lowest number of natural disasters. The federal government has made some kind of disaster declaration for the capital just 19 times. Delaware has been subject to 20 federally-recognized disasters, while South Carolina and Rhode Island have relied on federal disaster funding 21 times each.

President Obama  issued a disaster declaration for Boulder, Adams, Larimer and Weld counties on Saturday. In a statement released Sunday, the White House said Obama called Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper to pledge the federal government’s full support; Craig Fugate, the FEMA administrator, is traveling to the state today. FEMA had already deployed several incident management and search and rescue teams to help stranded residents reach safety.

So far, five Coloradans had been killed by the flooding, according to the Colorado Office of Emergency Management. Our colleagues at the Capital Weather Gang report that more than 17 inches of rain has fallen on Boulder in just the past week, including more than 9 inches in a single 24-hour period last Wednesday and Thursday. Twenty-one helicopters are in the air performing rescues, while local officials said more than 1,000 people are waiting to be saved.

Colorado hasn’t seen flooding severe enough to require a federal emergency declaration since May 1999, when storms swept through the Rockies. FEMA spent almost $7.2 million on those floods, though the scale of this year’s deluge is much larger.

Texas has experienced more major floods than any other state, with 48 declared disasters since 1953. Missouri and California have each experienced 45 floods during that time, while Oklahoma, Minnesota, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and New York have all had more than 40. Only one flooding disaster has been declared in both South Carolina and Washington, D.C., during that same time.

Major flooding disaster declarations by state, 1953-present:

(Source: FEMA)

Texas is also the state hardest-hit by wildfires. The federal government has allowed the state to access funding on 234 occasions in the last 60 years. California, which has received 132 fire declarations, comes in a distant second.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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