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100 Years Ago: The Pueblo Flood of 1921

Pueblo Flood 1921
Posted at 6:02 PM, Jun 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-03 11:03:42-04

PUEBLO — 100 years ago one of Colorado's most devastating natural disasters happened in Pueblo. In just two hours, the entire downtown area of Pueblo was underwater after heavy rains on June 2 and 3 caused the Arkansas river to rise. In the days after the water receded, it was revealed the floodwaters had destroyed much of the city. Hundreds of people died, with some estimates being as high as 1,500 people.

A city underwater

According to a U.S. Department of Interior report, the first warning of the approaching flood reached the city about 6 p. m. on June 3rd, stating that a wall of water was rushing down the river. Messengers were sent out to warn the people living in the lowlands. The report says hundreds of people went to the levees to watch the water, "not thinking that the city could be inundated, as the levees were believed high enough to protect it."

However, the levees would break, which prevented people from escaping to higher ground, many people drowned as a result. The same plight happened to other people with homes in the lowland "who had refused to heed the flood warning," according to the report.

After the rain, then came fire. As the city was underwater, fires began to break out. Burning piles of timber from a lumber yard floated through the streets, and would then set buildings on fire. The federal report says the fires were "almost impossible" to contain because water surrounded the buildings as high as 14 ft. in some areas, meaning fire teams could not reach the buildings.

High watermark on different buildings in pueblo flood 1921
High-water mark on different buildings in Pueblo according to a 1922 report on the flood from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Some of the most dramatic accounts of the flood include sights of railroad passenger coaches floating away, bridges being toppled, and entire buildings being carried away.

The flood ended up covering over 300 square miles and "carried away over 600 homes, and caused upwards of $25 million in damage at the time. By today’s standards, that number would likely be $300 million or more," According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

100 Years Ago: The Pueblo Flood of 1921

The Elks Club served as a relief center and they helped 3,000 refugees. Camps were also built to shelter the many people who had lost homes in the flood. A few days after the flood, more help came from the Red Cross, Salvation Army, Knights Columbus, and military units according to NOAA. The disaster was so bad, Pueblo was placed under federal control to help the area rebuild. It took until 1924, three years later, for the city to completely recover.

The flood recedes, its legacy remains

To prevent this kind of disaster from ever happening again, a larger channel was built, which diverted the Arkansas River away from downtown Pueblo, according to the Pueblo City-County Library.

The Pueblo Conservancy District was formed after the flood to oversee the relocation of the river. Later the Arkansas River was able to somewhat return to its historic location, in the form of the Pueblo Riverwalk.

In addition to the Riverwalk, another Pueblo landmark also came about to help prevent future flooding, the Pueblo Reservoir. According to Colorado Park and Wildlife, "in 1930, the Frying pan-Arkansas Water diversion project began to develop the area for water storage."

How did the Pueblo Flood of 1921 happen

A high-risk zone, could this happen again?

Meteorologically speaking, an event like this can and will happen again. The largest floods in state history generally happen along the front range, specifically along main rivers (Arkansas, Cache La Poudre, Big Thompson, South Platte, etc.).

The north-south oriented Rockies create a barrier for wind flow, forcing air to rise and condense along the front range, creating rain and thunderstorms.

During the June 1921 flood, a persistent easterly flow of warm and humid was funneled along the Arkansas River from wide-open Pueblo county into the sharper canyon in Fremont county. This led to 5 days of heavy rain totaling over 6 inches in Florence and Pueblo. This rain was most intense the night of June 3rd and the morning of June 4, where a cloudburst (extremely heavy burst of rain) led to the Arkansas river cresting at a whopping 24.66 feet.

At its peak, the Arkansas river flow was at 103,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), where the levees were built for 40,000 cfs at the time.

The main concern about future floods is whether infrastructure can withstand them. Pueblo was able to rebuilt just a few years after the flood and increased the city's ability to withstand another flood of 1921.

Events in Pueblo keep the memory of the natural disaster alive

Rocky Mountain PBS decided last summer to produce a documentary in honor of the flood's 100th year anniversary. The filming process began in January 2021, after generous donations made the dream possible.

Samuel Ebersone, a Script Writer and Co-Producer on the documentary says "The community was so supportive and everyone was so responsive when we would call them up and ask them for an interview, or ask to see their photo collection, or what have you".

On June 2, Ebersone and the rest of the team behind the documentary want to experience the film with everyone in Pueblo, offering a free screening at the Pueblo Riverwalk before the documentary officially airs on June 3.

Pueblo Elks Lodge is also hosting a memorial event on June 3 from 5:00 pm to 8:00 pm in memory of the flood. The building served as one of the main refugee centers during the flood. They'll be hosting a car show, dressing in 1920's attire, and handing out food that resembles what the refugees would have eaten.

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